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A celebrity's property interest in his name and likeness is unique, and therefore there is no serious question as to the propriety of injunctive relief.
Plaintiff Muhammad Ali, a citizen of Illinois, brought the present diversity action for injunctive relief and damages against defendants Playgirl, Inc., a California corporation, Independent News Company ("Independent"), a New York corporation, and Tony Yamada, a California citizen, for their alleged unauthorized printing, publication and distribution of an objectionable portrait of Ali in the February, 1978 issue of Playgirl Magazine ("Playgirl"), a monthly magazine published by Playgirl, Inc., and distributed in New York State by Independent. The portrait complained of depicted a nude black man seated in the corner of a boxing ring and was claimed to be unmistakably recognizable as plaintiff Ali. Alleging that the publication of the picture constituted, inter alia, a violation of his rights under Section 51 of the New York Civil Rights Law (McKinney 1976) and of his related common law "right of publicity," the plaintiff prayed that the defendants cease distributing and disseminating the February, 1978 issue of Playgirl Magazine, to withdraw that issue from circulation and recover possession of all copies presently offered for sale, and to surrender to plaintiff any printing plates or devices used to reproduce the portrait complained of.
Under the circumstances, was the plaintiff entitled to the remedy of injunctive relief?
The court found that the plaintiff had satisfied the standard established in the Second Circuit for determining whether a preliminary injunction should issue. First, the court held that the plaintiff had established probable success on the merits of his claimed violation of privacy under N.Y. Civ. Rights § 51. The magazine could not seriously dispute the assertion that the offensive drawing was in fact the plaintiff’s "portrait or picture," as that term was used in § 51. It was clear that the picture had been used for the "purpose of trade" within the meaning of § 51. Moreover, the magazine conceded that the plaintiff did not consent to the inclusion of his likeness. The court also held that the record established the likelihood that the plaintiff would prevail on his claim that his right of publicity had been violated by the publication of the offensive portrait. The court held that difficulty in determining monetary damages as to the plaintiff’s property right in his public reputation left him without an adequate remedy at law and satisfactorily established irreparable injury for purposes for preliminary equitable relief.