Rosa Parks Heirs Lose Legal Battle Over Movie, Books Sold at Target

A federal appeals court holds that the civil rights icon's publicity rights don't trump the privilege to speak about matters of public interest.
Rosa Parks  Courtesy of Photofest

For those who followed the legal battle at the turn of the century over the Outkast song, "Rosa Parks," the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has something to say about the intersection between commercial art and a celebrity's publicity rights.

Parks, of course, was the civil rights icon who inspired a generation by refusing to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. Later in life, she continued to be celebrated, but she brought legal challenges to the exploitation of her name and image.

The most famous case was against the hip-hop group Outkast, who in their song, intoned, "Ah-ha, hush that fuss. Everybody move to the back of the bus."

In 2003, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a ruling that Parks couldn't sue for defamation, but allowed her to pursue claims under the Lanham Act and under the common law right of publicity. Before the case got much further, however, the case yielded a settlement amid word that not all of her relatives were on board the lawsuit.

Parks died soon after that deal was made, but her heirs continued to be litigious.

On Monday, the 11th Circuit got to review the dismissal of a case brought by the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development against Target Corporation, the retail giant. According to the lawsuit, Target violated her rights to name and likeness by selling books and movies including The Rosa Parks Story, which was first broadcast on CBS.

In this instance, the lawsuit was premised on a Michigan statute guarding against the appropriation of the commercial value of a person's identity.

But as circuit Judge Robin Rosenbaum notes, the law is not absolute, as Michigan's constitution affords free speech and courts have long-recognized a right to communicate on matters of public interest.

"The use of Rosa Parks’s name and likeness in the books, movie, and plaque are necessary to chronicling and discussing the history of the Civil Rights Movement — matters quintessentially embraced and protected by Michigan’s qualified privilege," writes Rosenbaum. "Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a discussion of the Civil Rights Movement without reference to Parks and her role in it. And Michigan law does not make discussion of these topics of public concern contingent on paying a fee. As a result, all six books, the movie, and the plaque find protection in Michigan’s qualified privilege protecting matters of public interest."

Here's the full opinion.

The ruling stands in contrast to a federal judge who recently agreed to enjoin a film about Aretha Franklin over the singer's publicity rights. 

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