Rule 1: A celebrity's right of publicity has economic value. Courts now agree that while a celebrity is alive, the right of publicity takes on many of the attributes of personal property. It can be possessed and controlled to the exclusion of others. Its economic benefits can be realized and enjoyed. It can also be the subject of a contract and can be assigned to others.
Rule 2: The defense of laches is based upon the doctrine of equitable estoppel. Its essential elements include (1) an inexcusably long delay caused by the claimant's negligence in asserting its claim and (2) an injury to another's rights resulting from this delay.
Appellant and appellee were non-profit corporations. Appellant filed an unfair competition action to dissolve appellee and prevent it from using the celebrity's name. The celebrity's estate intervened on behalf of appellee, asserting it had given appellee permission to use the celebrity's name and had not given similar permission to appellant. Appellee moved for summary judgment, and appellant argued that appellee’s claims were barred by laches, acquiescence and waiver. The trial court entered summary judgment for appellee, ruling that the right to publicity was descendible at death under Tennessee law. On appeal, the court vacated the trial court’s decision on the ground of laches and remanded the case.
Issue 1: Did the trial court err in ruling that the celebrity's right of publicity was descendible under Tennessee law?
Issue 2: Did the trial court err in granting summary judgment for appellee?
Answer 1: No.
Answer 2: Yes.
Conclusion 1: The celebrity’s right of publicity survived his death and remained enforceable by his estate and those holding licenses from the estate. While Tennessee courts were capable of defining the parameters of the right of publicity on a case by case basis, the General Assembly also had the prerogative to define the scope of the right. The decision concerning the descendibility of the celebrity's right of publicity was not based upon Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-25-1101 et seq. but rather upon the recognition of the existence of the common law right of publicity.
Conclusion 2: Appellee made out a claim based upon the descendibility of the celebrity’s common law right of publicity and upon its unfair competition claim. However, viewing the proof in a light most favorable to appellant, appellee had not demonstrated that appellant's laches defense was without merit as a matter of law.