March 9, 2011

Right Of Publicity In Washington State Hendrix Case

Experience Hendrix, LLC v., Ltd., No C09-285Z (W.D. Wash. Feb. 8, 2011). Decision here.

Washington State enacted a law that rights of publicity do not expire upon the death of the individual. Defendants distribute merchandise bearing Jimi Hendrix's likeness, accompanied with his name. If applied in the litigaiton, the statue would deem all rights to the use of Jimi Hendrix's name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness in plaintiff (as assignee of Hendrix's intestate heir). Such result would preclude defendants, absent plaintiff's consent, from commercially distributing images of Jimi Hendrix, at least in the State of Washington.

Although plaintiff sought to avoid the "constitutional thicket" concerning the Washington statute by not pleading a cause of action thereunder, the Court held that plaintiff's allegations implicate the right of publicity. Thus, plaintiff could not avoid "the fundamental issue in this case, namely whether [the statue] " had the effect of vesting in [plaintiff] any right of publicity relating to JImi Hendrix such that [plaintiff] may preclude defendants from trading in images of, or art created by, Jimi Hendrix."

In analyzing the constitutionality of the statute, the Court noted that the statute purports to govern whether a right of publicity exists, whether it continues post-mortem, and how it may be transferred during life and after death, regardless of where the particular individual or personality is or was domiciled. The Court held that the statute violated the Due Process and Full Faith and Credit clauses of the Constitution and consequently, under New York law, plaintiff had no publicity rights. The court stressed that the statute purports to govern advertising and fundraising activities everywhere. Also, under the Due Process Clause, to apply its own law, Washington must have a significant contact or significant aggregation of contacts, creating state interests, such that choice of its law is neither arbitrary nor fundamentally unfair. The Court held that applying Washington law to the issue of descendbility was arbitrary and unfair because the domicile at death has substantial relevant contacts.

The court also found that application of the Washington statute would cause forum shopping by having plaintiffs divert sales to Washington, and would require users of the rights (potential defendants) to attempt to restrict commercial activity to avoid application of the statute. Applying the domicile-at-death rule would avoid these problems and provide certainty.