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Rogers v. Grimaldi - 875 F.2d 994 (2d Cir. 1989)

Rule:

In sum, section 43(a) of the Lanham Act HN10 does not bar a minimally relevant use of a celebrity's name in the title of an artistic work where the title does not explicitly denote authorship, sponsorship, or endorsement by the celebrity or explicitly mislead as to content. Similarly, Oregon law on the right of publicity, as interpreted by New York, would not bar the use of a celebrity's name in a movie title unless the title was "wholly unrelated" to the movie or was "simply a disguised commercial advertisement for the sale of goods or services." Under these standards, summary judgment was properly entered on the undisputed facts of this case, rejecting the Lanham Act and right of publicity claims, as well as the claim for false-light defamation.

Facts:

Ginger Rogers and the late Fred Astaire were among the most famous duos in show business history. Rogers and Astaire were among that small elite of the entertainment world whose identities were readily called to mind by just their first names, particularly the pairing "Ginger and Fred." Appellees-defendants Alberto Grimaldi, MGM/UA Entertainment Co., and PEA Produzioni Europee Associate, S.R.L. produced and distributed in the United States and Europe a film entitled "Ginger and Fred," created and directed by famed Italian film-maker Federico Fellini. Shortly after distribution of the film began, Ginger Rogers brought this suit, seeking permanent injunctive relief and money damages. Her complaint alleged that the defendants (1) violated section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a) (1982), by creating the false impression that the film was about her or that she sponsored, endorsed, or was otherwise involved in the film; (2) violated her common law right of publicity; and (3) defamed her and violated her right to privacy by depicting her in a false light. The defendants moved for summary judgment. Rogers opposed the motion and submitted a market research survey purporting to establish that the title "Ginger and Fred" misled potential movie viewers as to Rogers' connection with the film. The District Court granted summary judgment to the defendants, finding that defendants' use of Rogers' first name in the title and screenplay of the film was an exercise of artistic expression rather than commercial speech. The District Judge also held that First Amendment concerns barred Rogers' state law right of publicity claim. Rogers appealed the summary judgment.

Issue:

1. Was the use of a celebrity first name in a film created a false impression that such celebrity sponsored, endorsed or involved in the film in violation of the law?

2. Was the use of a celebrity first name in a film infringed upon the common law rights of privacy of the such celebrity? 

Answer:

1. No. 2. No.

Conclusion:

1. The Court held that the sponsorship and endorsement aspects of Rogers’ Lanham Act claim raised no genuine issue. The title "Ginger and Fred" contained no explicit indication that Rogers endorsed the film or had a role in producing it. The survey evidence indicated at most that some members of the public would draw the incorrect inference that Rogers had some involvement with the film. But that risk of misunderstanding was so outweighed by the interests in artistic expression as to preclude application of the Lanham Act. As to the misleading argument with regard to the content of the film, the Court observed that the mixture of meanings, with the possibly misleading meaning not the result of explicit misstatement, precluded a Lanham Act claim for false description of content. To the extent that there was a risk that the title would mislead some consumers as to what the work was about, that risk was outweighed by the danger that suppressing an artistically relevant though ambiguous title would unduly restrict expression.

2. The Court determined there was no infringement of common law rights of privacy of Rogers. In light of the Oregon Court's concern for the protection of free expression, New York would not expect Oregon to permit the right of publicity to bar the use of a celebrity's name in a movie title unless the title was "wholly unrelated" to the movie or was "simply a disguised commercial advertisement for the sale of goods or services." The title "Ginger and Fred" was clearly related to the content of the movie and was not a disguised advertisement for the sale of goods or services or a collateral commercial product. The Court held that under Oregon law, the right of publicity did not provide Rogers with a relief. Moreover, the film was manifestly not about Rogers. It was about a pair of fictional characters who were like Rogers and Astaire only in their imagination and in the sentimental eyes of their fictional audience.

The summary judgment was affirmed.

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