ArticlesVolume 42, No. 3 (2019)

Why Movie Studios Care About Right of Publicity

Ben Sheffner

Senior Vice President & Associate General Counsel, Copyright & Legal Affairs, Motion Picture Association of America, Inc.

Abstract

So why do movie studios care about the right of publicity? The answer is quite simple. Our studios make lots of movies and television programs about and inspired by real people and events. It is critical to our studios that they have the right to do that—whether or not the subjects of those movies and television shows want movies or television shows made about them.

To illustrate how important this issue is to our studios in present day, let me say a couple things. The word “copyright” is included in my job title. I am mostly a copyright lawyer, and I think that is why I was hired at the Motion Picture Association. But over the last two to three years, I have spent the majority of my time on right of publicity, more so than on issues involving copyright. My counterparts—the intellectual property lawyers in-house at the movie studios— consider court decisions threatening their right to make movies and television shows about and inspired by real people and events, without obtaining the subjects’ permission, “existential threats.” One of the things that Professor Jennifer Rothman mentioned in her remarks is that we need to do a better job articulating what the nature of this threat is, or what it means as a practical matter. Let me take up the baton and try to give you a sense of just how fundamentally important this issue is in current years.