As demand for augmented reality and virtual reality continues to rapidly expand, inevitable legal issues abound. For example, are companies in the clear for using in a VR short Ryan Gosling’s voice, taken from content from the movie First Man?
The panelists of “Virtually Legal: Insights on AR, VR, and the Law”—Mary Innis, managing partner in the Innis Law Group in Chicago; Monique Cheng Joe, senior vice president and head of brands and content intellectual property at NBCUniversal; and Sara Perry, director and senior counsel of marketing at Netflix—weighed in on why attorneys need to involve themselves at the inception of these technologies to stay ahead of new legal issues and discussed murky legal issues, where precedents are still being set.
“You’ve got to anticipate potential legal issues not just for you but also for potential users involved,” Perry said.
Among the issues she talked about was the right of publicity, a person’s right to control the commercial use of his or her identity. Right of publicity is centered on a few elements—image, name, and likeness—and can include voice, signatures, and performing style, depending on the state (such as in Texas).
Perry described an instance in which the voice of a celebrity in a trailer was given the OK by Universal Pictures in First Man: The Immersive VR Experience. In the VR short, viewers relive the Apollo 11 mission through the scope of Neil Armstrong, portrayed by Ryan Gosling in the movie First Man. There are shots from inside the lunar module, mission control, and the surface of the moon. The short also uses Ryan Gosling’s voice from the movie, uttering Armstrong’s famous “one small step” line.
Voice is one element typically included in states’ views of the right of publicity, and without consent, the use of it is prohibited. However, this instance was fine, Perry said, because of an agreement between Universal, which produced the film and partnered with creative studios CreateVR, and RYOT to produce the VR short. In the agreement, Gosling’s likeness can be used in extended projects as long as it works as a promotional product alongside the movie.
But what if there is no consent at all? Innis looked at two cases in which football players filed suit against Electronic Arts for using their likeness in the Madden NFLand NCAA Football video game series.
In Davis v. Electronic Arts, former NFL players Michael E. Davis, Billy Joe Dupree, Vince Ferragamo, and others alleged that EA used their likenesses without authorization in several of the Madden games. EA does pay annual licensing fees to the NFL to use current players’ likenesses. But in the early 2000s, former players appeared in games without licensing to allow it. In that time period, EA featured historic football teams whose rosters were not identified by name or even photograph—instead they were described by physical characteristics culled from teams’ media guides.
The players asserted claims for right of publicity in California and a district court denied EA’s petition for a summary motion to dismiss. The case then went to the 9th Circuit, which ruled that EA’s use of the former players’ likeness was not incidental. But when Davis v. Electronic Arts reached the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the court would not certify a class action since the inquiry is specific to each former player (the plaintiffs also were acting on behalf of about 6,000 others).
Keller v. Electronic Artssimilarly involved football players filing suit against EA for use of their image in its games. Former Arizona State and University of Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller claimed use of his image, stats, and jersey number violated his right of publicity. As in Davis, the 9th Circuit did not buy EA’s incidental likeness argument. Also like in Davis, Keller reached the Northern District of California. But this time it settled, with the NCAA awarding $20 million to certain Division I men’s basketball and Division I Bowl Subdivision football athletes who attended certain institutions during the years the game were sold, according to a press release by the NCAA.
“Courts are looking into this and it’s no longer going to be acceptable to say this use is just incidental—it is an evolving issue in the law,” Innis said. “Most attorneys now are saying that defense is not going to hold in water.”
With all the questions posed, “Virtually Legal: Insights on AR, VR, and the Law” alerted attorneys into emerging legal concerns in AR and VR.