by Dennis Crouch
Intellectual property rights in the U.S. have long been a mix of state common law rights and federal statutory rights. Patents and copyrights were established in the Constitution and enacted by the First Congress in 1790. Those rights were fairly quickly established as exclusively federal, meaning that there is effectively no patents or copyrights offered by individual states. Trademarks and trade secrets followed a different path – developing under state common law before later later gaining federal protections; with trade secrets moving federal most recently via the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) of 2016. Unlike patent and copyright, trademarks and trade secrets continue to be concurrent and overlapping, meaning that state rights continue to exist and be enforceable alongside the federal right. It is common for litigation to assert both. With trademark law, the federal right has been around since 1870 and today occupies most of the space. Because the federal trade secrecy right is so new (and no registration is available), it is still unclear whether we’ll see the same result.
The straggler here is the right of publicity, often termed Name Image & Likeness or NIL rights. Although publicity rights initially emerged as a privacy interest, I find that students are quick to see its kinship to trademark law and unfair competition. While typical privacy rights focus on personal interests and one’s peace of mind, the right of publicity is more economic and commercial in nature. The basic idea here is that a person’s reputation is an asset — commercial goodwill. And, that person’s brand is their name, image, and likeness.
The growth of the internet and influencer culture has raised the awareness and importance of publicity rights as the a key transferable with endorsement deals and celebrity advertising. In the background, we also have the emergence of deep fake AI tools that allow digital impersonation of celebrities at a level never experienced (as exemplified by my AI created version of Swift above).
In a recent hearing on AI IP issues before the US Senate IP subcommittee, Adobe proposed creating a new federal right of publicity called the Federal Anti-Impersonation Right (FAIR). This would establish a minimum level of protection against the unauthorized commercial use of a person’s name, image, likeness, or other identifying aspects of their persona. Adobe argued this is needed to protect artists and creators from having their style or likeness copied by AI tools and used by others for commercial gain. A national right of publicity could provide more consistent protections similar to those created for trademarks and trade secrets. It could also facilitate enforcement across state lines and could eventually serve as the basis for international treaties in this increasingly global space where persona rights are often exploited online and across multiple platforms.
Adobe’s proposal is largely in theory, and the terms have not yet been drawn-up. Obviously, key policy questions remain:
- Should protections apply only to famous personalities or to anyone whose NIL is used for commercial gain?
- How should we balance free speech, parody, and fair use concerns?
- To what extent should online platforms be shielded from liability?
- Should rights vest only for commercial exploitation or is there a privacy interest to protect?
The origins of publicity rights stem from privacy protections rather than commerce. This conceptual difference from trademark law is important, and I would suggest that any federal right should consider personal dignity and reputational interests, not just economic harms from impersonation.
What do you think? Are you ready for a national right of publicity?