Trademark Law

Retailers may sell books and movies on Rosa Parks without paying her institute

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The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that retailers may sell books and movies about the life of civil rights leader Rosa Parks, the Birmingham News reported yesterday.

The nonprofit Raymond and Rosa Parks Institute for Self Development had sued Target for selling seven books about Parks, a movie and a commemorative plaque. Its 2013 lawsuit alleged that the retailer was violating Parks’s right of publicity.

The federal district court hearing the case, in the Middle District of Alabama, granted summary judgment to Target. In a ruling (PDF) filed Monday, the 11th Circuit agreed.

“The use of Rosa Parks’ name and likeness in the books, movie, and plaque is necessary to chronicling and discussing the history of the civil rights movement,” a three-judge panel wrote. “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.”

The case was decided under Michigan law because Parks lived in Michigan at the time of her death, according to law professor Eugene Volokh, blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy. Volokh wrote that the 11th Circuit created a new “public interest” test for right-of-publicity cases with its ruling, creating a split with other courts.

Parks, who died in 2005, has succeeded with other right of publicity cases before, most notably against the hip-hop group Outkast. Outkast recorded a song originally called “Rosa Parks” that included the line “Hush that fuss/Everybody get to the back of the bus,” the Hollywood Reporter’s THR, Esq. blog noted. The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2003 that Parks could pursue her case under trademark law and the common-law right of publicity, but not defamation. The case later settled.

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