On April 5th, in a victory for visual content creators and licensors, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by former college athletes alleging that T3Media had misappropriated their names and likenesses by selling licenses to photographs from the NCAA Photo Library. The Ninth Circuit held that the athletes’ claims for right of publicity and unfair competition under California law were preempted by the federal Copyright Act.
In their putative class action lawsuit, the athletes had sought to hold T3Media liable for displaying the photographs online and for offering non-exclusive licenses to consumers permitting them to download a single copy of a chosen image for non-commercial art use. The athletes did not own copyright to the photographs at issue—the copyrights were owned by the NCAA, who had contracted with T3Media to store, host, and license the images. T3Media responded to the athletes’ lawsuit by filing a special motion to strike under California law, which was granted by the district court. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision throwing out the athletes’ lawsuit and awarded attorneys’ fees to T3Media.
In its opinion, the Court clarified the test for determining whether a right of publicity claim is preempted by the Copyright Act. Section 301 of the Copyright Act provides a two-part test for determining whether a state law claim is preempted: first, the court asks whether the subject matter of the state law claim fell within the subject matter of copyright; and second, the court asks whether the state law rights asserted were equivalent to rights within the scope of copyright. Applying this test to the athlete’s right of publicity claims, the Court drew a distinction between claims based on the unauthorized use of a person’s likeness in advertising, and claims based on the mere display or distribution of an artistic work:
[A] publicity-right claim may proceed when a likeness is used non-consensually on merchandise or in advertising; but where a likeness has been captured in a copyrighted artistic visual work and the work itself is being distributed for personal use, a publicity-right claim is little more than a thinly-disguised copyright claim because it seeks to hold a copyright holder liable for exercising his exclusive rights under the Copyright Act.
Opinion at 3.
The Ninth Circuit’s opinion in T3Media’s favor is consistent with longstanding practices in the visual content industry. It affirms that visual content creators and providers, by merely displaying and offering for license images that depict people, do not make any use that implicates the right of publicity. The decision provides clear guidance that will allow visual content creators and licensors to continue to offer creative, newsworthy, and culturally important images to the public.
 Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP submitted an amicus brief in support of T3Media on behalf of the Associated Press, the Digital Media Licensing Association, Getty Images (US), Inc., the Graphic Artists Guild, the National Press Photographers Association, Inc., PhotoShelter, Inc., the Professional Photographers of America, Shutterstock, Inc., and ZUMA Press, Inc.