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Can special features of a celebrity’s appearance be used to sell goods?

by Ling-ying Hsu and Jeremy Olivier

Given the special attention the public pays to famous people, many businesses have invited celebrities to endorse their products or services as a way of increasing their exposure and improving sales. However, the cost of obtaining such celebrity endorsements can be prohibitively expensive, forcing businesses to take a step back. In such cases, would it be acceptable to instead use some identifying aspect of the celebrity’s personality or appearance in an advertisement as a means of saving some money? For example, would using a cartoon character bearing the hairstyle and No. 17 basketball jersey sported by Jeremy Lin promoting a certain product produce the desired effect of influencing word of mouth and controlling costs? Would such an approach give rise to potential legal liabilities?

The Right of Publicity in the US and Taiwan

The “Right of Publicity” in the American legal system indicates the right of a person to prohibit others from misappropriating his or her name, image or likeness, gesture, voice, or other indicia of his or her personal identity for commercial purposes without first obtaining his or her consent. This right also enables the person in question to control and profit from the commercial use of his/her name, likeness and persona. Although there is no directly corresponding right in Taiwan, in practice, Taiwan’s courts do acknowledge infringement of an individual’s portrait rights, meaning a violation of that individual’s legal interests in his or her personality. Such individuals may also, in accordance with the Civil Code, claim relevant damages against the perpetrator. Until now, however, there have been no decided cases that deal with the specific situation in which the special features of a person’s appearance are used without their permission in Taiwan. This article will therefore rely on court judgments related to portrait rights as reference in discussing the legal risks of this approach.

Possible civil liability

According to Article 18, Paragraph 1 of the Civil Code, “when one’s personality is infringed upon, they may apply to the court for removal of the infringement; if there is a likelihood of infringement of one’s personality, they may apply for prevention of the infringement.” Article 195, Paragraph 1 also provides that “if a person has wrongfully damaged the body, health, reputation, liberty, credit, privacy, or chastity of another, or has wrongfully damaged other legal interests in another’s personality and the extent of such damage is severe, the injured person may claim a reasonable amount of monetary compensation, even if such injury is not a purely pecuniary loss.” Based on these provisions, in 2012 Taiwan’s Intellectual Property Court handed down Civil Judgment No. 101-Min-Zhu-Su-19, which referred to the American concept of the “Right of Publicity” in determining that portrait rights, when viewed in terms of the commercial use of an individual’s portrait, possess commercial value, and encompass both personality and economic rights. A party that engages in the unauthorized use of the rights holder’s name, image, or other aspect to obtain benefits is in violation of the rights holder’s publicity rights. This judgment also explained that portrait rights are the right of an individual to decide whether their image or likeness, exhibiting distinctive aspects of their personality, may be publicized, and that such rights involve personality interests. Therefore, portrait rights should be classified as the “personality rights” of Article 18 of the Civil Code, as well as the “other legal interests in one’s personality” of Article 195, Paragraph 1, and should be protected as such.

According to the judgment, portrait rights allow the rights holder to decide whether and how their image or likeness is used, involve personality interests, and are economic rights in nature in that they possess commercial value when used in certain ways. However, celebrities should also have the right to decide whether to publicize the special or identifiable aspects of their appearance or personality, and to control the commercial use of these aspects. Such rights should therefore also be classified as the “personality rights” and “other legal interests in one’s personality” provided in the Civil Code.

Accordingly, using the identifiable gesture, voice, or other special feature of a celebrity’s appearance in an advertisement to sell products without their permission is likely to be considered an infringement of that celebrity’s personality rights and interests. The celebrity in question may request removal of the infringement, in accordance with Article 18 of the Civil Code, and if the infringement is severe, may claim emotional distress damages under Article 195, Paragraph 1. There is currently no clear definition of “severe infringement” of personality interests in Taiwan, and no consensus on what would constitute such infringement in practice, either. However, as expressed in the above-mentioned judgment, and in the Taiwan Taipei District Court’s Civil Judgment No. 96-Su-2645, if the person whose portrait rights were infringed is a public personality, using their image for commercial purposes without their permission is undoubtedly a case of “severe infringement”, in that such image possesses considerable economic value.

In addition, the commercial value in a celebrity’s image or persona also entails his or her economic rights in those characteristics (referring to the holdings of the Intellectual Property Court’s Civil Judgments No. 101-Min-Zhu-Su-19 and No. 105-Min-Zhu-Su-38). Celebrities may thus, in accordance with Article 184 of the Civil Code, also request compensation for economic loss if the identifiable aspects of their appearance or personality are used without their permission. Furthermore, as economic rights are used to understand the infringement of a person’s publicity rights, such infringement would be akin to someone using that person’s property to obtain benefits without having first received the property owner’s permission. In this case, the benefits obtained by the infringing individual from such use rightfully belong to the property owner, who can, by claiming unjust enrichment, request the return of those benefits to them (see the Taiwan Taipei District Court’s Civil Judgment No. 96-Su-2645 and the Intellectual Property Court’s Civil Judgment No. 105-Min-Zhu-Su-38).

Possible liability under the Fair Trade Act

Furthermore, would using a celebrity’s gesture, voice, or other distinguishing aspect of their personality in an advertisement constitute a violation of the Fair Trade Act? The Taipei High Administrative Court’s Administrative Judgment No. 89-Su-3144 held that whether the content of an advertisement is false or misleading depends on the awareness of the party being advertised to and should be determined based on the full content of the advertisement, rather than on certain parts. Also, according to the Taiwan High Court’s Civil Judgment No. 96-Chong-Shang-323, if the advertising company uses a celebrity’s image for a commercial without having received that celebrity’s prior authorization and such use is sufficient to cause consumers to mistakenly believe that the celebrity is endorsing the advertising company’s products, this is a blatant violation of the legal principle that the representations in an advertisement must be truthful, expressed in Article 21 of the Fair Trade Act. Given the above, an advertisement whose content, when considered in its entirety, contains an unauthorized use of the special gesture, voice, or other aspect of a celebrity’s appearance, could be found to constitute false endorsement and therefore a violation of Article 21. If the advertisement involves other deceptive behavior or free-rides on the commercial reputation of another, this could also be deemed a violation of Article 25.

Conclusion

Although in practice there have been no relevant court judgments in Taiwan that specifically discuss the use of a celebrity or famous person’s gesture, voice, or other distinguishing aspects of their personality in advertising, when considering those judgments that deal with portrait rights, one can conclude that such special features are the celebrity’s legal interests in his or her personality protected under the Civil Code. Furthermore, portrait rights also involve the celebrity’s economic rights in those features. Given the forgoing, if such features are infringed upon, the celebrity may request both emotional distress damages and compensation for economic loss. Lastly, advertising that has not received the authorization of the celebrity it depicts could be considered false advertising under the Fair Trade Act and violate fair trade standards. Therefore, companies looking to keep marketing budgets low should think twice before adopting this inexpensive but highly risky method.

For more information on publicity rights in Taiwan, please contact Peter Derbach at pdernbach@winklerpartners.com and Ling-ying Hsu at lhsu@winklerpartners.com.

 

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