Both have recently brought legal actions against video game makers alleging that their rights of privacy or publicity have been violated by characters in video games. The lawsuits are the latest in a series of high profile disputes that pit an individual’s personality rights against a game maker’s First Amendment rights.
Various states have enacted statutes that protect an individual’s right to “publicity” or “privacy.” The statutes differ from state-to-state but the basic idea is that an individual should have some right to prevent unauthorized commercial use of his or her name, likeness and identity by a third party. This is sometimes referred to as “personality rights.”
The expressive content of video games, on the other hand, is subject to protection under the First Amendment. The extent to which the First Amendment rights of a video game manufacturer may permit the use of real people as characters in video games without violating the individual’s personality rights has been the subject of much interest and discussion in the recent past.
The discussion resumed in earnest in early July when Ms. Lohan brought an action in New York state court alleging that the maker of the video game Grand Theft Auto V had violated her right of privacy under New York state law by the use of her image, likeness, “screen persona” and details from her personal life in depicting a character in the game named Lacey Jonas. A few weeks later, Mr. Noriega brought an action in California state court alleging that the maker of the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops II violated his right of publicity under California state law by illegally using his image and likeness in connection with a character described “as a kidnapper, murderer and enemy of the state.” The lawsuits have been treated by some in the media and by some commentators with a certain degree of amusement and in Mr. Noriega’s case – whose colorful resume includes convictions for drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering as well as a lengthy stint as a U.S. Prisoner of War – outright disbelief, but they raise serious issues regarding the interplay between the First Amendment and the rights of privacy and publicity.