Saturday, February 18, 2023

The Volokh Conspiracy: Once Upon a Time in the California Court of Appeal

Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood doesn't infringe 1960s actor Christopher Jones' right of publicity.

EUGENE VOLOKH | 2.17.2023 8:19 AM

From McKenna v. Sony Pictures Entm't, Inc., decided Wednesday by the California Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Justice Lamar Baker, joined by Justices Laurence Rubin & Dorothy Kim:

Paule McKenna ..., the executor of the estate of Christopher Jones, sued defendants and respondents Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc., Boss Film Productions, Inc., and Visiona Romantica, Inc. ... for allegedly misusing Jones's name and likeness (posthumously) in the film Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood....

Christopher Jones was a popular actor in the 1960s. He starred in the television series The Legend of Jesse James and a number of movies including 3 in the Attic and Wild in the Streets. Jones quit Hollywood in 1969. He died in 2014.

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (the film), is a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. It was produced by Boss Film Productions and released by Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2019. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as fictional actor Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt as his fictional stunt-double Cliff Booth, and Margot Robbie as real-life actor Sharon Tate. It depicts a few days in the lives of the three main characters in February and August 1969, and imagines (or reimagines, in Tate's case), how their lives intersect with the Charles Manson family.

A variety of products with recognizable name brands appear throughout the course of the film. For example, there is a scene in which Pitt's character Booth cooks a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese. A box of Wheaties cereal is on his counter while he does so, and a copy of TV Guide is seen elsewhere in his home. The same scene includes brief glimpses of Booth's television, which at one point plays an advertisement for Jones's movie 3 in the Attic and identifies Jones as one of its stars. In various other scenes, Booth wears a t-shirt with a logo for Champion spark plugs on it. Characters also at one point drive down Hollywood Boulevard and pass the Pantages Theatre, which was displaying a marquee for 3 in the Attic featuring Jones's name.

The court concluded that the complaint was properly dismissed under California's anti-SLAPP statute:

[The anti-SLAPP statute applies because t]he creation of a movie is an exercise of free speech ... [as to] issues of public interest. The film concerns the culture of the late 1960s in Hollywood and the Manson family murder of Tate. These are matters of public interest about which discussions are still ongoing. The uses of Jones's name, the portrayal of Booth and/or Dalton in proximity to branded products, and the portrayal of Booth wearing shirts with brand logos on them are details that add to the depiction of the culture in Hollywood in the late 1960s. The public interest in these topics is demonstrated by the numerous articles and reviews discussing the film that defendants submitted in support of the motion, some of which specifically reference Tarantino's inclusion of era-appropriate products, as well as the many-months-long run the film had in theaters (late July to early October 2019).

Plaintiff advances a number of arguments to the contrary, most of which relate back to her contention that the activity on which her complaint is based is simply "false brand endorsement" or, in other words, the recreation of Jones's likeness and portrayal of that likeness in connection with commercial brands, without consent or credit. The film, she claims, is incidental to this false endorsement for profit issue and she asserts there is no public interest in the brand endorsement or in her private dispute with defendants over their alleged use of Jones's likeness. The problem with plaintiff's argument, however, is that the broader creative acts of including the aforementioned aspects in the film and the alleged use of Jones's likeness are inextricably linked. For example, in the context of the film, any alleged commercial reason for dressing Booth in a t-shirt with the Champion logo on it cannot be isolated from the creative impetus for the same action. Furthermore, defendants submitted a declaration representing the brands depicted (other than Hennessey) were included for artistic reasons and were used to "capture the look and feel of the time period," and to "accurately portray the late 60s."

Plaintiff also relies upon a handful of cases for the proposition that advertisements for an artistic work are not necessarily noncommercial speech. To the extent plaintiff relies on these cases to argue the advertisements for the film should not be eligible for anti-SLAPP protection, the authority is inapposite. Unlike the advertisements at issue in the cases plaintiff cites, the advertisements for the film are not alleged to include any false statements and are merely adjuncts of the film. To the extent plaintiff contends these cases transform the portions of the film with product placement into commercial speech, that is also incorrect. Both of plaintiff's cases addressed separate advertisements for creative works, not allegedly integrated advertising within the works themselves....

Thus, to resist the anti-SLAPP motion, plaintiff had to show a probability of prevailing on the claim, and she couldn't:

Civil Code section 3344.1, subdivision (a)(1) provides in pertinent part: "Any person who uses a deceased personality's name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness, in any manner, on or in products, merchandise, or goods, or for purposes of advertising or selling, or soliciting purchases of, products, merchandise, goods, or services, without prior consent from the person or persons specified in subdivision (c), shall be liable for any damages sustained by the person or persons injured as a result thereof."

Subdivision (a)(2), however, exempts from subdivision (a)(1) a "play, book, magazine, newspaper, musical composition, audiovisual work, radio or television program, single and original work of art, work of political or newsworthy value, or an advertisement or commercial announcement for any of these works ... if it is fictional or nonfictional entertainment, or a dramatic, literary, or musical work." But there is also an exception to the exemption. Under Civil Code section 3344.1, subdivision (a)(3), "If a work that is protected under paragraph (2) includes within it a use in connection with a product, article of merchandise, good, or service, this use shall not be exempt under this subdivision, notwithstanding the unprotected use's inclusion in a work otherwise exempt under this subdivision, if the claimant proves that this use is so directly connected with a product, article of merchandise, good, or service as to constitute an act of advertising, selling, or soliciting purchases of that product, article of merchandise, good, or service by the deceased personality without prior consent from the person or persons specified in subdivision (c)."

Subdivision (k) of the statute provides that "[t]he use of a name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness in a commercial medium shall not constitute a use for which consent is required under subdivision (a) solely because the material containing the use is commercially sponsored or contains paid advertising. Rather, it shall be a question of fact whether or not the use of the deceased personality's name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness was so directly connected with the commercial sponsorship or with the paid advertising as to constitute a use for which consent is required under subdivision (a)."

The film unquestionably falls into the exemption under Civil Code section 3344.1 subdivision (a)(2), as it is an audiovisual work of fictional entertainment. In order to demonstrate minimal merit under subdivision (a)(3), then, plaintiff must have made a prima facie case that the film "includes within it a use [of a deceased personality's name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness] ... [that] is so directly connected with a product, article of merchandise, good, or service as to constitute an act of advertising, selling, or soliciting purchases of that product, article of merchandise, good or services ...."

There is no contention that Jones's voice, signature, or photograph was used in the film. Jones's name is mentioned twice during advertisements for his movie 3 in the Attic (played within the film), and his name appears fleetingly as characters drive past a marquee promoting the same movie. Plaintiff has not provided any evidence demonstrating these brief references to Jones, which narratively serve to identify Jones as a contemporary of Dalton and Booth, are "so directly connected" to any products, merchandise, good, or service that they constitute advertisements. The same is true of the appearance of Jones's name in promotional trailers for the film and the fake magazine promoting the film.

The true heart of plaintiff's claim is that Booth, and to a lesser extent Dalton, were based on and styled after Jones. Plaintiff identifies aspects of both characters that she contends make up a whole constituting a likeness of Jones. Some of these aspects are physical—like Booth's hairstyle and aviator sunglasses—while others are biographical—like the scene in which Dalton is comforted by a child. While we are doubtful that plaintiff has demonstrated a probability of success in alleging Jones's likeness was used in the film, we need not reach that issue to decide plaintiff has not demonstrated a probability of prevailing on her Civil Code section 3344.1 cause of action.

The film depicts Booth and Dalton, though primarily Booth, using a slew of household products and otherwise appearing in scenes that feature brand logos. It also depicts Booth wearing one or more t-shirts with a brand logo on it. In response to plaintiff's allegation, defendants submitted the declaration of producer McIntosh that asserts the only product placement in the film was for Hennessy cognac, a product not used by either Booth or Dalton and thus not associated with Jones's alleged likeness. The declaration further asserts the other products depicted in the film were used solely for creative, not financial, reasons and the filmmakers were not paid to include them. As the film was, in fact, not compensated for the inclusion of the products and was not advertising them through any sort of product placement, Booth and Dalton's proximity to the products was not so directly connected to any of the products that their presence constituted advertisement or sale....

The court likewise rejected plaintiff's federal trademark and false endorsement claim, as well as some other state law claims. Seems quite right to me. Congratulations to Louis P. Petrich and Elizabeth L. Schilken (Ballard Spahr), who represent the defendants.