Friday, March 09, 2018

unauthorized sale of model's photos leads to internally inconsistent TM/ROP ruling

Passelaigue v. Getty Images (US), Inc., 2018 WL 1156011, No. 16-CV-1362 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 1, 2018)

Elodie Passelaigue is a professional fashion model who sued under the Lanham Act, Washington state law, and New York law against Getty, Bill Diodato Photography, and Bill Diodato (no stranger to IP litigation) for unlawfully licensing and selling images of her that were eventually used to advertise synthetic beauty products. The court dismissed some claims but allowed others to continue.

As part of one advertising campaign in early 2004, Clinique arranged for a test photo shoot in New York, and hired Diodato to take the photos. After the test shoot, Diodato allegedly “asked Ms. Passelaigue if he could use photos from the test shoot for his portfolio and professional website simply as an example of his work.” He allegedly “showed her a form document titled ‘Model Release,’ representing to Ms. Passelaigue that if she was willing to allow him to use the photos only for his portfolio and website, she just needed to sign the Model Release form.” Passelaigue allegedly agreed to allow him to use the photos for his website “[a]s a professional courtesy.” The Release she signed allegedly didn’t have some important information, including photographer or witness signatures, a “Description of Shoot,” or an attached copy of a photo ID or “Visual Reference.”

In 2009, Passelaigue was hired to model for a photo shoot in New York for Spiegel, and Diodato photographed that shoot. Diodato allegedly took about a dozen headshots of Passelaigue without Spiegel’s consent, and told Passelaigue the headshots were “precautionary, in case Spiegel later decided it wanted to use the images for the cover of a catalog.” Passelaigue didn’t sign anything at the 2009 Spiegel photo shoot.

In 2014, Passelaigue learned for the first time that her headshots were being used for an advertising campaign for Botox and on an Allergan website,  The webpages allegedly falsely suggest that Passelaigue was at least in her 40s.  Allergan allegedly continued to use Passelaigue’s images in its advertising campaigns until 2016.  Passelaigue’s agent investigated, and eventually Getty provided a copy of the Release containing a handwritten date of “6-11-09” under her name, and the phrase “Clinique Underwater Shot [sic] & Spiegel Beauty” on the line designated for “Description of Shoot,” both written by someone else. This Release also included two sample headshots, one from each shoot.  Getty eventually identified the photographer as “Adrianna Williams,” who was selling other models’ photographs through Getty, but other models hadn’t heard of her either, and Passelaigue determined that the photographer was in fact Diodato.

The court found the release binding as to the 2004 Clinique shoot only, since Passelaigue conceded that she signed it; the plausible allegations of “doctoring” the release sufficed to continue the case for the 2009 photos.  Passelaigue argued that she was fraudulently induced to sign the original Release because
Diodato orally promised her that he would only use her photographs in his portfolio and on his website.  However, the release language was two paragraphs of super-broad language allowing the photographer to distribute the images “for editorial, trade, advertising, packaging or other purposes in any manner or medium … throughout the world, in perpetuity.”  It further said, “I understand Photographer may contract with a stock agency and that the images may be included in stock files. I further understand and agree that the images may be modified, altered, cropped and combined with other content such as images, video, audio, text and graphics.”  Because the alleged misrepresentations conflicted with the terms of the Release, “there can be no reasonable reliance as a matter of law.”

Nor was the Release voidable because, “for a high-end fashion model, the limitation of $500 in damages, as well as the prohibition on any objection to unflattering, embarrassing, or otherwise objectionable uses, are unconscionable terms.” Although the allegations in the complaint suggested “some deceptive tactics,” they didn’t rise to the level of depriving Passelaigue of “meaningful choice,” as required for unconscionability.  “The Release is short—one page—and afforded Plaintiff with the opportunity to easily disprove Diodato’s alleged oral promises that he would only use the photographs for his portfolio.” Passelaigue didn’t allege that her bargaining power, experience, and/or education were limited, or that she was under any sort of duress or pressure to sign the release without reading it, and she admitted that she signed it as a “professional courtesy.” Thus, there were no allegations that Diodato did anything so as to effectively deprive Passelaigue of a meaningful choice.

The same arguments disposed of her fraud claim.

Continuing on with the 2009 photos, the court turned to her NY right of publicity claim.  Defendants argued that the photographs weren’t used “for purposes of advertising or trade” under Section 51 because they were merely making the images themselves available for license.  But an image for sale by an online image distributor is exempt from Section 51 liability only so long as it was “for use in a manner lawful under this article.” Because Passelaigue plausibly alleged that the sale of images was not in fact “for use in a manner lawful under” Section 51 by virtue of the fact she did not knowingly authorize their use, and she also adequately alleged that sale of the images themselves was “for purposes of advertising or trade.” 

The court also disposed of defendants’ First Amendment defense.  “The photographs here are entirely commercial in nature. They were commissioned by companies seeking to use them in advertising campaigns, and any artistic expression added by Diodato as the photographer was incidental.” Nor was Section 51 preempted by §301 of the Copyright Act, because of the additional element of use of the image for advertising or trade purposes without written consent.

Passelaigue’s Lanham Act claims mostly failed.  Her allegations were that defendants violated the Lanham Act by (1) misrepresenting that Getty had the right to license or sell photographs of her; (2) using the fictitious name of Adrianna Williams as the name of the photographer, which was likely to cause confusion as to the origin of the images; and (3) contributing to Allergan’s use of her image in a way that falsely associates her with synthetic cosmetic products.

However, Passelaigue had no rights to the photos themselves.  “[H]er only plausible claim can be based on harm to her image, and its false association with another product.” Thus, alleged misrepresentations (1) and (2), as well as allegations that Diodato contributed to Getty’s acts, failed to state a claim; even if she did have rights to the photos, Dastar would bar those claims.

Turning to claims based on false affiliation with Allergan and with the pseudonym Adrianna Williams, the court noted that “the misappropriation of a completely anonymous face could not form the basis for a false endorsement claim, because consumers would not infer that an unknown model was ‘endorsing’ a product, as opposed to lending her image to a company for a fee.” However, Passelaigue’s allegations she is an “internationally-renowned fashion model” might establish that her mark is strong enough to cause a likelihood of consumer confusion.  In addition, the sale of images of Passelaigue on Getty’s stock photo website and its listing under the work of photographer “Adrianna Williams” were affiliations that are covered by the text of the Lanham Act. [How could this possibly be material to anyone?  Also, if Diodato really did take the pictures, why can’t he use a pseudonym without violating the Lanham Act? Are other pseudonyms also violations of the Lanham Act?  Also also, why isn’t this conduct, which is to say a false designation claim repled as "affiliation" with Getty or Williams, covered by Dastar too?]

As for contributory infringement, Passelaigue failed to sufficiently allege that defendants intentionally induced non-party Allergan to violate the Lanham Act, as required. She alleged that Diodato was aware that, by selling the images to Getty, that Getty would “use the images commercially, advertising them for sale or license to others, such as Allergan,” and that Getty “knew or should have known that professional models such as plaintiff ... would not have agreed to convey rights to their images to Diodato, Getty, or ultimately one of Getty’s clients.” She further alleged that Getty should have known how Allergan would use the image because it licensed that image. None of this was sufficient to allege intentional inducement. (Citing Tiffany v. eBay.)

Anyway, the NY unfair competition claims were analyzed just as the Lanham Act claims, except that NY also requires bad faith.  But Passelaigue’s allegations of defendants’ responsibility for the unauthorized use by Allergan would show bad faith.  [Wait one second: weren’t those the allegations just found insufficient to allege contributory infringement?  If NY law is the same as federal law, how can this be the case?]

As for NY consumer protection law under Section 349, allegations that Getty misrepresented its right to license were too conclusory to state a claim, or explain how the alleged misrepresentation actually targeted or harmed consumers.

The court refused to dismiss class allegations at this stage of the case.

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