You may have worked very hard on your public image, especially if you use that image to generate revenues through a brand or persona that you publicize online. When someone takes your carefully cultivated image without permission, they are stealing your hard work to make money for themselves. Moreover, their actions could be causing significant harm to your image by associating it with a product or service that you do not want to be associated with. The good news is that California law provides you with legal options in these situations, and there are powerful remedies and substantial damages available in right of publicity cases. Additionally, when the plaintiff is successful at trial, the court may also order the defendant to pay attorney’s fees and legal expenses for both sides.
To learn about your options for pursuing damages with a California right of publicity claim, keep reading this blog.
Statutory Damages Available to Plaintiffs in California Right of Publicity Cases
The right of publicity is explicitly protected by the Celebrities Rights Act, and damages for right of publicity violations are set forth in California Civil Code Sec. 3344(a). The law states that any person who misappropriates someone else’s right of publicity “shall be liable to the injured party or parties in an amount equal to the greater of seven hundred fifty dollars ($750) or the actual damages suffered by him or her as a result of the unauthorized use, and any profits from the unauthorized use that are attributable to the use and are not taken into account in computing the actual damages.” The statute also allows for the awarding of punitive or exemplary damages to the party whose right of publicity was violated when the defendant engaged in oppression, fraud, or malice.
The statutory damages in a right of publicity claim can add up very quickly because the plaintiff can sue for each unlawful use of their likeness or persona. Another very important factor when determining damages in a right of publicity case is the total amount of money that the defendant earned or profited from use of the plaintiff’s likeness.
Determining Actual Damages in a California Right of Publicity Claim
It is not always easy to establish an exact amount for actual damages in a right of publicity claim because the value of a person’s name or likeness isn’t obviously quantifiable. This is one way in which right of publicity differs from other intellectual property rights like copyright, trademark, or patent, which commonly involve commercial products or services and reportable revenues.
Some factors that the court may consider when determining damages in a right of publicity lawsuit include the following:
- The plaintiff’s level of fame.
- How much money the plaintiff has earned from their likeness in the past.
- Previous contracts and licenses that include royalties.
- Whether the plaintiff’s publicity rights have already been licensed. (Unlicensed rights might have more value.)
- How much money the defendant made from their use of the plaintiff’s likeness.
Punitive Damages in Right of Publicity Cases
The punitive damages question comes after the court has already decided that the defendant misappropriated the plaintiff’s publicity rights. At this point in the case, the court is now left to determine exactly how much money to award the plaintiff. The key issue for the court is whether the defendant committed malice, oppression, or fraud. California law defines these terms as follows:
- Malice: There are two (2) ways that a defendant can be found to have acted with malice. The first definition of “malice” is any conduct which the defendant intended to cause injury to the plaintiff. The second definition is any despicable conduct which the defendant engaged in with conscious disregard of the rights or safety of other people.
- Oppression: The statute defines “oppression” as despicable conduct that consciously disregards another person’s rights and that causes cruel and unjust hardship for that person.
- Fraud: An individual commits fraud when they use an intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of a material fact for the purpose of depriving someone else of property or legal rights, or for the purpose of causing injury.
The basis for punitive damages awards in publicity law cases actually comes from another statute: California Civil Code 3294. That law stipulates that in any case not involving a contract breach, the plaintiff may be eligible for punitive damages in addition to actual damages. Cal. Civ. Code 3294(a) states that when the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, the plaintiff “may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.” The idea behind punitive damages is that the defendant’s conduct has been so egregious that they deserve to be punished in some way that goes beyond the actual injury or harm caused. Moreover, punitive damages awards have a deterrent effect in that they serve as a reminder to other people that they should not violate the law in the future.
Exception to Punitive Damages
There are strong defenses that can be raised in right of publicity cases, including an exception for punitive damages that may be available to some employers. That’s because Cal. Civ. Code Sec. 3294(b) stipulates that when a right of publicity misappropriation was committed by an employee of the defendant, the defendant-employer will not be liable unless the plaintiff can show that the employer had certain advance knowledge. For instance, the plaintiff must prove to the satisfaction of the court that the employer knew that the employee who would later go on to violate the plaintiff’s right of publicity was, in fact, unfit for the position. For corporate employers, the plaintiff must show that the advance knowledge was possessed by an officer, director, or managing agent of the corporation. Additionally, an employer can still be liable for punitive damages if they were personally guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, as those terms are defined in the statute.
Other Remedies Available in Right of Publicity Claims
Plaintiffs with possible right of publicity claims may also be able to pursue remedies through different statutes. California Civil Code Section 3344(g) explicitly states that these remedies are cumulative “and shall be in addition to any others provided for by law.” This opens the door for plaintiffs to bring other civil suits in addition to the right of publicity lawsuit.
Additionally, one important consideration for plaintiffs in a right of publicity case is whether the defendant has insurance coverage. That’s because a lot of publicity rights claims involve defendants with insurance companies that will ultimately pay out any settlement or damages award issued by the court.
Contact the Los Angeles Right of Publicity Attorneys at Tauler Smith LLP
Your identity could have significant monetary value in the internet era, especially if you are an influencer on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, or Vimeo. You never know when your image or likeness might be sought for online advertisements. If someone has used your identity without permission, the experienced Los Angeles right of publicity lawyers at Tauler Smith LLP can help you take legal action.