December 2, 2014
Bill Cosby wants Massachusetts to grant his image remunerative life after death by amending the commonwealth’s right-of-publicity law. If his bill becomes law, the right to commercially exploit the Cosby image will outlive Mr. Cosby himself by 70 years (the earliest point by which, to be snide, I predict the brand might recover some monetary value).
Until the scandalous allegations about Mr. Cosby returned to the headlines, the media having lost interest for a few years, it looked as if he was going to get his way. The State Senate had, back in 2012, already approved his proposal, “An Act Protecting the Commercial Value of Artists, Entertainers, and Other Notable Personalities,” to give the measure its full title. It did so again in 2014, and this time the bill made it as far as the Ways and Means Committee, where it lingered at the close of the official legislative session.
I think it unlikely that the Massachusetts Legislature will use its unofficial sessions to pass the bill, but can claim no inside knowledge. Leading the charge for the Cosby Law was Senate-President-in-Waiting, Stan Rosenberg. When the Legislature reassembles in January, the newly-elevated Senator Rosenberg will no longer be in the bill-sponsoring business and, with the putative Cosby Law about as popular as its eponym, a new lead sponsor may be hard to find. Let us hope so.
There are several reasons to oppose the bill. First, it grants special rights to one particular class of Bay Staters. At present, we residents of Massachusetts all have the statutory right to control the commercial exploitation of our names and likenesses. You can read the relevant statute here, and if you read only the first two words you will learn something important, namely that the current law protects “any person.” That is not some fancy legalistic term of art, by the way: It means any person. The Cosby Law, in contrast, would protect you only if you happen to be a “personality,” which the bill defines as “an individual whose identity has commercial value.” It would not merely amend the current law but repeal and replace it. Ordinary residents would no longer enjoy the right of publicity. That right would belong only to celebrities, not we the hoi polloi.
My second reason for hoping the proposed Cosby Law fades away is its potential chilling effect. At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, I have noticed that powerful people rarely welcome criticism. If there is a plausibly legitimate method for muzzling their critics, they will use it. Although the Cosby bill expressly allows the use of a “personality’s identity” for purposes of “news report or commentary” as well as in artistic and expressive works, some lawyers to the rich and famous have a tendency to send threatening letters to awkward writers and artists anyway. Those on the receiving end may know that they are within their rights but fear the cost of proving it. So they give in without a fight. When there is no downside to sending baseless cease-and-desist letters, the consiglieri will send them.
Third, the bill creates the right to control the commercial use of a personality’s “image,” an ambiguous term that the bill does not define. In fact, the word “image” does not appear in the bill’s relatively clear definition of “identity,” i.e. “a personality’s name, likeness, voice, or signature that uniquely identifies that particular personality.” Injecting the undefined word “image” into the bill creates just the kind of ambiguity that lawyers to the rich and famous could exploit for their nefarious, speech-chilling ends (see above).
My fourth and final reason is this. The bill contains the following: “A personality shall have a property interest in such personality’s identity and shall have the exclusive right to control the commercial use of the personality’s identity during the personality’s life and for 70 years after the date of the personality’s death.” What the bill aims to achieve here is not so much a legal impossibility as an ontological and biological one. The dead cannot control anything. That is just one of the many features that make death so unappealing.
Now, I think I know what the drafters meant to write — that the right should endure for 70 years after death, if vested in a transferee — but what they wrote does not embody that meaning. So they should tear up this draft and try again. Or, better still, just tear up this draft and leave it at that.