Model Publicity Rights Can Be Assigned to 3rd Parties, Court Says

SANTA ANA, Calif. — In a ruling of significant interest to adult entertainers, a state appellate court has ruled that California's "right of publicity" for models can be licensed and assigned to third parties, and enforced by the third parties.

The decision by the California Court of Appeal establishes the first published precedent in the state that explicitly holds that the right of publicity is assignable and that such rights are independent of federal copyright interests. 

The right of publicity is, in California, “a right to prevent others from misappropriating the economic value generated ... through the merchandising of the ‘name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness’ of the [holder].” Nearly half of all states have right-of-publicity statutes.

The ruling is a boon for Timed Out LLC, a San Diego firm that helps models obtain appropriate compensation for images misused or even poached.

Adult industry attorney Allan Gelbard of Tarzana, Calif., told XBIZ that in most instances adult entertainment companies won't be impacted by the ruling because in the traditional porn biz most model releases include license for all rights.

"But it could be interesting where a model is photographed for a movie, the release doesn't include the appropriate rights, then the photographer sells the images to a dating site that uses them," Gelbard said. The "model would arguably have a claim against the dating site."

The court reinstated a suit by Timed Out, which claimed that two models had assigned their rights to Timed Out after discovering that their likenesses were used by Dr. Kambiz Youabian on a website advertising cosmetic medical services.

The suit was dismissed on grounds that that the right of publicity was “personal” and could not be assigned. But the appeal court said that  both the financial interest protected by the right of privacy, and a cause of action for misappropriation of one’s likeness, are assignable.

With the federal preemption issue over copyrights, the appeal court noted the defendant was not being sued for publishing the photographs but for misappropriating the likenesses pictured.

With the decision in Timed Out LLC vs. Youabian Inc., models no longer have to make the decision whether it is worth their time, expense and effort to pursue claims when their publicity rights are violated — they can assign the affected publicity rights to agencies such as Timed Out to pursue the claims.

The appellate panel, 3-0, reversed the lower court's judgment, ruling in favor for the models.

View model publicity rights ruling