Famous Athletes Sue Samsung Over Its 'Olympic Genome Project' on Facebook

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Some of the most famous U.S. Olympians ever are suing over a Facebook app they believe infringes their publicity rights. In a lawsuit filed against the Samsung Corporation in Los Angeles Superior Court on Wednesday, the athletes including Mark Spitz, Greg Louganis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Janet Evans and Jason Lezak are objecting to the "Samsung Olympic Genome Project," which plays a kind of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game to show how Facebook users are connected to notable Olympians.

The Olympic Genome Project reportedly crosses user information from users' Facebook profiles with a database holding data on some 3,000 athletes. It shares tidbits about how users have commonalities with these star Olympians.

But the suing athletes -- 18 in total and also including Amanda Beard and Dara Torres -- say the app runs afoul of California Civil Code Section 3344, which makes it unlawful to use without consent another's name, voice, signature, photograph or likeness for commercial purposes.

It's a law derived from a mash-up of privacy statutes and intellectual property and has been used by both celebrities and non-celebrities to protect against unwilling uses of one's likeness, sometimes at the expense of creative expression. This isn't the first time that publicity rights have targeted Facebook apps. For instance, Facebook itself has been sued over such features as the "Friend Finder" and "Sponsored Stories."

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This case is somewhat different in that it targets a big corporation which developed a third party app, which is allegedly being used to slyly advertise the company's products.

According to the complaint, Samsung has been running the Olympic Genome Project since March and never got permission to use the athletes' names and images. "Plaintiffs' names and images and background information are on the Facebook application, in an attempt to link Plaintiffs to consumers," says the lawsuit. "Prominently displayed on the Facebook application is the Samsung's trademarked name as well as advertising for Defendants' 'Galaxy' product. Samsung has used Plaintiffs' names and images to create the impression that Plaintiffs endorse Defendants' products and business."

The plaintiffs are demanding "license fees that should have been paid, plus a percentage interest of the gross sales of Defendants' products since the use..."

In addition, the lawsuit seeks punitive damages. Richard Foster is representing the plaintiffs.

A Samsung spokesperson had this to say about the lawsuit:

“Samsung is disappointed by the lawsuit filed around the US Olympic Genome project. The Genome Project is a unique program that benefits Team USA by connecting fans and US Olympians. We have collaborated closely on this program with the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) over the past year and followed USOC procedures in communicating with the athletes. Athletes have had the opportunity to voice their opinions on the program and to control their participation. Samsung will continue to support Team USA and the spirit of the Olympics in our efforts.”

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner