Was Press Release Ruling the Right Stuff?

Posted on October 29, 2012 
Filed Under General

Warning: A press release has been deemed as promotional in a court of law, which could result in a lawsuit.

Late this week I received one of Michael Lasky’s law alerts, and it really got my attention. Lasky, an attorney at Davis & Gilbert LLP, is always ready to offer sage legal advice to communication professionals. This alert was particularly interesting.

The case involved AT&T, then Cingular Wireless, and their issuing of a press release on PRNewswire.com that mentioned Gen. Chuck Yeager, the celebrated pilot who’s exploits were featured in the movie The Right Stuff.

Here’s what was in the release: Nearly 60 years ago, the legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier and achieved Mach 1. Today, Cingular is breaking another kind of barrier with our MACH 1 and MACH 2 mobile command centers, which will enable us to respond rapidly to hurricanes and minimize their impact on our customers.

Lasky’s summary of the case stated that Yeager got wind of the release and sued AT&T for statutory right of publicity. The jury ruled in favor of Yeager. A district court recently upheld the verdict, rejecting AT&T’s contention that the California statute only applied to “traditional, paid advertising.”

The court held that there was sufficient evidence in the record for the jury to conclude that Cingular’s press release used Yeager’s name to promote its services, and, therefore, that the press release fell within the purview of the California statute.

Lasky’s conclusion:  Right of publicity laws are not limited to traditional paid advertisements but, depending on the state, apply more broadly to communications which promote the company or sale of a service or product. Therefore, press releases and other publicity efforts that are outside the context of traditional advertising can subject companies to potential liability for violating an individual’s right of publicity, even where those tools are directed to the news media and are not directly intended for consumers.

So, the judge didn’t get the memo that PR is different from advertising. But in this case, was the press release overly promotional? Did its language warrant a ruling in favor of Yeager? I’d be interested in your opinion.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

Comments

  • http://davidrosencommunications.com David Rosen

    The Cingular press release incorporated a statement of fact in the public domain as a yardstick against which to measure its own technical achievement. There is nothing I can see in the sentence quoted in your blog to suggest that Yeager himself endorsed Cingular.

    So I find the ruling a bit disturbing. If a journalist had said the same or similar, no one would think twice about it. The difference presumably is that the press release was a promotional vehicle. But last time I checked, the First Amendment applied to PR and advertising (and speech in general) and not just to the news media. The court’s ruling in this case serves to inhibit free speech, albeit mildly.

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  • http://www.launch.it Trace Cohen

    I don’t see what the issue is… I agree with David that if a journalist/blogger/columnist made that reference, it would have been perfectly fine.

    What was the outcome and legal ramifications though? Regardless, this won’t stop anyone from doing whatever it is they ruled in favor of.

  • http://www.gilchristgroup.com Pam Gilchrist

    Diane, it would be helpful if you could outline for us what exactly is “statutory right of publicity” or “Right of publicity laws”

    I have successfully used this technique many times in the past. “The court held that there was sufficient evidence…” What is the litmus test for this?

    Am I discerning that Yeager’s “claim to fame” is somehow similarly protected as the title of a Beatles’ song or lyric line which cannot be used without permission?

    The music is protected by copyright.
    What legally prevents on from mentioning a historic event?

    Yeager should be pleased people are his brand and achievement is being discussed.

    I understand brand management, however, is this ruling suggesting that the “right of publicity” trumps freedom of speech, journalistic freedom and the freedom of a communicator to provide a journalist with a compelling story angle?

    Would be interested in more on this topic.

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