It’s amazing what you can find on Wikipedia. Someone could probably make a lot of money just by posting a new incredible thing from Wikipedia every day. Here‘s mine:
In 1993, [Vanna] White won a lawsuit against the Samsung Electronics corporation over its use of a humorous ad featuring a robot turning letters on a game show. The decision later was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The issue was over the property right to publicity. The court ruled in favor of White’s claim of a right to her property of publicity.
The majority opinion is easy to read and full of amusing legal arguments:
Consider a hypothetical advertisement which depicts a mechanical robot with male features, an African-American complexion, and a bald head. The robot is wearing black hightop Air Jordan basketball sneakers, and a red basketball uniform with black trim, baggy shorts, and the number 23 (though not revealing “Bulls” or “Jordan” lettering). The ad depicts the robot dunking a basketball one-handed, stiff-armed, legs extended like open scissors, and tongue hanging out. Now envision that this ad is run on television during professional basketball games. Considered individually, the robot’s physical attributes, its dress, and its stance tell us little. Taken together, they lead to the only conclusion that any sports viewer who has registered a discernible pulse in the past five years would reach: the ad is about Michael Jordan.
The dissenting opinion is even more striking, to the point that I will simply quote the whole opening section:
Saddam Hussein wants to keep advertisers from using his picture in unflattering contexts. Clint Eastwood doesn’t want tabloids to write about him. Rudolf Valentino’s heirs want to control his film biography. The Girl Scouts don’t want their image soiled by association with certain activities (Girl Scouts v. Personality Posters Mfg., 304 F. Supp. 1228 (S.D.N.Y. 1969) (poster of a pregnant girl in a Girl Scout uniform with the caption “Be Prepared”)). George Lucas wants to keep Strategic Defense Initiative fans from calling it “Star Wars.” Pepsico doesn’t want singers to use the word “Pepsi” in their songs. Guy Lombardo wants an exclusive property right to ads that show big bands playing on New Year’s Eve. Uri Geller thinks he should be paid for ads showing psychics bending metal through telekinesis. Paul Prudhomme, that household name, thinks the same about ads featuring corpulent bearded chefs. And scads of copyright holders see purple when their creations are made fun of.
Trademarks are often reflected in the mirror of our popular culture. See Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958); Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Breakfast of Champions (1973); Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) (which, incidentally, includes a chapter on the Hell’s Angels); Larry Niven, Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex in All the Myriad Ways (1971); Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977); The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (using Coca-Cola as a metaphor for American commercialism); The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977); Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991); The Wonder Years (ABC 1988-present) (“Wonder Years” was a slogan of Wonder Bread); Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat (musical).
Hear Janis Joplin, Mercedes Benz, on pearl (CBS 1971); Paul Simon, Kodachrome, on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (Warner 1973); Leonard Cohen, Chelsea Hotel, on The Best of Leonard Cohen (CBS 1975); Bruce Springsteen, Cadillac Ranch, on The River (CBS 1980); Prince, Little Red Corvette, on 1999 (Warner 1982); dada, Dizz Knee Land, on Puzzle (IRS 1992) (“I just robbed a grocery store – I’m going to Disneyland / I just flipped off President George – I’m going to Disneyland”); Monty Python, Spam, on The Final Rip Off (Virgin 1988); Roy Clark, Thank God and Greyhound [You’re Gone], on Roy Clark’s Greatest Hits Volume I (MCA 1979); Mel Tillis, Coca-Cola Cowboy, on The Very Best of (MCA 1981) (“You’re just a Coca-Cola cowboy / You’ve got an Eastwood smile and Robert Redford hair. . . “.
The creators of some of these works might have gotten permission from the trademark owners, though it’s unlikely Kool-Aid relished being connected with LSD, Hershey with homicidal maniacs, Disney with armed robbers, or Coca-Cola with cultural imperialism. Certainly no free society can demand that artists get such permission.
Something very dangerous is going on here. Private property, including intellectual property, is essential to our way of life. It provides an incentive for investment and innovation; it stimulates the flourishing of our culture; it protects the moral entitlements of people to the fruits of their labors. But reducing too much to private property can be bad medicine. Private land, for instance, is far more useful if separated from other private land by public streets, roads and highways. Public parks, utility rights-of-way and sewers reduce the amount of land in private hands, but vastly enhance the value of the property that remains.
So too it is with intellectual property. Overprotecting intellectual property is as harmful as underprotecting it. Creativity is impossible without a rich public domain. Nothing today, likely nothing since we tamed fire, is genuinely new: Culture, like science and technology, grows by accretion, each new creator building on the works of those who came before. Overprotection stifles the very creative forces it’s supposed to nurture.
The panel’s opinion is a classic case of overprotection. Concerned about what it sees as a wrong done to Vanna White, the panel majority erects a property right of remarkable and dangerous breadth: Under the majority’s opinion, it’s now a tort for advertisers to remind the public of a celebrity. Not to use a celebrity’s name, voice, signature or likeness; not to imply the celebrity endorses a product; but simply to evoke the celebrity’s image in the public’s mind. This Orwellian notion withdraws far more from the public domain than prudence and common sense allow. It conflicts with the Copyright Act and the Copyright Clause. It raises serious First Amendment problems. It’s bad law, and it deserves a long, hard second look.