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In a decision released on March 17, 2006, and published in today's New York Law Journal, an appellate court (the Appellate Division, Fourth Department) has confirmed that there is no cognizable "privacy right" when it comes to the "non-commercial" use of one's name or likeness.

In Walter v. NBC Television Network, Inc., Claire Walter sued comedian Jay Leno, The Tonight Show and other parties, claiming violation of New York's Civil Rights Law, sections 50 and 51, when the nationally televised program broadcast Ms. Walter's photograph as part of a comedy sketch, without first securing her consent.

Normally, when one's name or likeness is used for commercial purposes, the law's prohibitions and consent requirements apply, except when the photograph is used within the context of "news," or "newsworthy events." The question reviewed by the appellate court was whether this exception also applied to a late-night talk show's comedic bit. In an interesting twist, the Appellate Division concluded that it did. "A performance involving comedy and satire may fall within the ambit of the newsworthiness exception even if the performance is not related 'to a "legitimate" news broadcast [or event]' ... We conclude that the comedic component of the newsworthiness exception applies here."

Just when you thought things were tenuous and controversial enough when it came to the meaning of such terms as "pornography" or "art," now it seems the definition of what is "news" or "newsworthy" is also being expanded to an inappropriate extreme. Should one's name or likeness be freely subject to satiric or comedic abuse? When that kind of use is not intertwined with a "legitimate" news story, we think not.

To review a complete copy of the Walter decision click this link: