Who controls how one’s identity is used by others? This legal question, centuries old, demands greater scrutiny in the Internet age. Jennifer Rothman uses the right of publicity—a little-known law, often wielded by celebrities—to answer that question, not just for the famous but for everyone. In challenging the conventional story of the right of publicity’s emergence, development, and justifications, Rothman shows how it transformed people into intellectual property, leading to a bizarre world in which you can lose ownership of your own identity. This shift and the right’s subsequent expansion undermine individual liberty and privacy, restrict free speech, and suppress artistic works.
The Right of Publicity traces the right’s origins back to the emergence of the right of privacy in the late 1800s. The central impetus for the adoption of privacy laws was to protect people from “wrongful publicity.” This privacy-based protection was not limited to anonymous private citizens but applied to famous actors, athletes, and politicians. Beginning in the 1950s, the right transformed into a fully transferable intellectual property right, generating a host of legal disputes, from control of dead celebrities like Prince, to the use of student athletes’ images by the NCAA, to lawsuits by users of Facebook and victims of revenge porn.
The right of publicity has lost its way. Rothman proposes returning the right to its origins and in the process reclaiming privacy for a public world.