In the 2019 movie “Hustlers,” Jennifer Lopez plays a stripper who becomes the ringleader of a criminal enterprise in which dancers drug unsuspecting men and then steal their personal information in order to drain their bank accounts. The movie is fiction, but is based on a 2015 New York Magazine article about a real case.
Recently, the woman who was at the center of that magazine article filed a lawsuit against the producers of the film, arguing that it damaged her reputation and violated her publicity rights by using her likeness without her permission. Attorneys for the producers have asked a federal court to dismiss the case.
Publicity rights involve complicated areas of the law that frequently come up in the entertainment business. Essentially, these are personal rights that allow a person to control the use of their name, portrait or picture. These rights can be important whenever a television program, film or other piece of entertainment is based on real, living people.
Publicity rights stem from the right to privacy, which is an even more complicated topic. While the United States Supreme Court has long recognized a constitutional right to privacy, the extent of this right is a subject of much debate. It’s up to the states to decide how much control people should have over the use of their likeness.
Many states have their own legal traditions of protecting privacy rights, and some state legislatures have passed their own laws regarding publicity rights. Massachusetts has a dedicated right to publicity law, but it has limitations.
The Massachusetts law is meant to protect the individual from having the commercial value of their name, identity or likeness exploited for someone else’s gain. To violate the law, one must use the person’s identity without written consent within Massachusetts for advertising or trade purposes. An injured party may sue a violator for damages.
There are many exceptions under the law, and the results can vary greatly from case to case. However, before using the name or image of a real, living person in a new work, it’s wise to talk to a lawyer about the legal issues involved. Many photographers and filmmakers have subjects sign a waiver that explicitly gives their consent.