Celebrities undoubtedly garner incredible amounts of attention (both good and bad).  Many businesses, and even people, attempt to tie themselves to certain celebrities.  What better way to get publicity for your Burger Barn than to show pictures of Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen and Sandra Bullock sharing 1 big milkshake?  However, when you want to use a celebrities name or likeness, whether it’s pushing your hamburger chain, mimicking a style of dress, to even using pictures of a celebrity to hawk a product, you have to follow certain laws.  By posting information or pictures of someone else without their permission, you could be guilty of infringing on a person’s rights.  Even celebrities who are deceased may have certain rights to protect their image (the estate would uphold these rights, since the celebrity is…incapacitated).  Recently, according to TMZ, Bette Davis’ estate has sued Stop Staring! Designs for using Bette’s name in marketing vintage frocks known as “the Betty Davis dress” or the “BDavis dress.” Many jewelers, makeup companies, and even restaurants use a celebrity to push their product.

Can You Ever Use A Celebrity Likeness?

While you could be sued for unauthorized commercial use of someone’s likeness, there are times when it is ok to use a celebrities likeness.  The simplest method?  Get the celebrities permission to use their likeness.  While this will usually require some sort of fee paid to the celebrity, an agreement by the celebrity would likely shield you from a lawsuit for unauthorized use of their image (since you would be authorized to use their image).

Some states will allow a company or person to use the likeness of a celebrity without having to get permission to use their likeness under the theory that by being a celebrity, they have given up a right to privacy.  Still, in many states, despite the fact a person is a celebrity, they are still allowed certain privacy rights.  However, in most circumstances, many companies will produce cheap knock-offs of the actual person (from “Snooki” to “Cookie”).

There are some exceptions to the use of celebrity likeness, such as using someone’s name or likeness for reporting or commentary purposes.  However, what exactly constitutes “news” and “commentary” is a hotly debated topic.  While classic print newspapers would likely fall under the “news” category, where does a blog fall?  Is it news, or something else?  However, even if you are trying to report news and use a celebrity picture, you must:

  1. Show some reasonable relationship between the content of the news or commentary and the celebrity (i.e. a story about puppies with a picture of Britney Spears would not qualify)
  2. When the media appropriates a celebrity’s entire performance without compensation (posting video of an entire concert).

Who Can Sue For Unlawful Use Of Name Or Likeness?

While it may seem silly to say that only a person can sue for the unlawful use of name or likeness, it is important to understand that only a human being can bring this type of suit.  A corporation or other organization cannot sue for misappropriate of name or likeness, but could sue for a violation of copyright or trademark.