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Law School Case Brief

Vanna White v. Samsung Elecs. Am., Inc. - 989 F.2d 1512 (9th Cir. 1993)


This is why intellectual property law is full of careful balances between what's set aside for the owner and what's left in the public domain for the rest of us: The relatively short life of patents; the longer, but finite, life of copyrights; copyright's idea-expression dichotomy; the fair use doctrine; the prohibition on copyrighting facts; the compulsory license  of television broadcasts and musical compositions; federal preemption of overbroad state intellectual property laws; the nominative use doctrine in trademark law; the right to make sound-alike recordings.


Vanna White sued Samsung alleging that the latter infringed her right of publicity by appropriating her identity. Samsung is known for running an ad campaign promoting its consumer electronics. Each ad depicted a Samsung product and a humorous prediction. The ad that spawned this litigation starred a robot dressed in a wig, gown and jewelry reminiscent of Vanna White's hair and dress; the robot was posed next to a Wheel-of-Fortune-like game board. The caption read "Longest-running game show. 2012 A.D." The humorous prediction was that Samsung would still be around when White had been replaced by a robot. The district judge held that, because Samsung did not use White's name, likeness, voice or signature, it didn't violate her right of publicity.  White appealed.


Does Samsung infringe the right of publicity of an individual without using her identity, but by simply reminding people of her with impunity?




The appellate court reversed, holding that under California law, White has the exclusive right to use her name, likeness, signature and voice for commercial purposes. Over the dissent's loud argument that Samsung did not use White's name, voice, signature, or likeness, a panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that California law also protected White's "identity" and disallowed Samsung's means of reminding people of Vanna White in its advertisements.

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