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The California appellate courts afford legal protection to an individual's proprietary interest in his own identity
Plaintiff Lothar Motschenbacher, a professional race car driver, has consistently "individualized" his cars to set them apart from those of other drivers and to make them more readily identifiable as his own. Since 1966, each of his cars has displayed a distinctive narrow white pinstripe appearing on no other car. This decoration has adorned the leading edges of the cars' bodies, which have uniformly been solid red. In addition, the white background for his racing number "11" has always been oval, in contrast to the circular backgrounds of all other cars. In 1970, defendants, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and William Esty Company, produced and caused to be televised a commercial which utilized a "stock" color photograph depicting several racing cars on a racetrack. Plaintiff's car appeared in the foreground, and although the plaintiff was the driver, his facial features were not visible. The defendants altered the photograph but retained the white pinstriping, the oval medallion, and the red color of plaintiff's car. Plaintiff filed an action against defendant, alleging that the latter misappropriated his name, likeness, personality, and endorsement in the nationally televised advertising for Winston cigarettes. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants, concluding that the plaintiff was not identified in the commercial either visually, aurally, explicitly, or inferentially. Plaintiff appealed.
Did the fact that the plaintiff’s facial features were not visible in the nationally televised advertising preclude the finding of misappropriation of plaintiff’s name, likeness, personally, and endorsement?
The Court noted that a name was commercially valuable as an endorsement of a product or for financial gain only because the public recognized it and attributed goodwill and feats of skill or accomplishments of one sort or another to that personality. The California appellate courts afforded legal protection to an individual's proprietary interest in his own identity. Although the likeness of the driver was unrecognizable, the distinctive decorations were not only peculiar to the driver's cars but caused some persons to think the car in question was the driver's and to infer that the person driving the car was plaintiff. The addition of a spoiler did not necessarily render the automobile impersonal, because the driver's cars frequently used spoilers but could be taken as contributing to the inference of sponsorship or endorsement. The alteration in numbering did not preclude a finding of identifiability by the trier of fact. Accordingly, the Court vacated the judgment of the district court and remanded the cause for further proceedings.