Before the holidays, Wired reported the filing of a putative class action in Ohio against a group of privately owned websites that allegedly collect and publish mugshot photos, and then charge those whose photos appear exorbitant amounts to have the photos removed. The lawsuit is premised on the right of publicity — that is, a person’s right to control the commercial exploitation of their name or likeness.
I have little sympathy for the so-called “mugshot racket,” but using the right of publicity as a method of attack has some issues. Ordinarily, the right of publicity is invoked to prevent the exploitation of an individual’s persona without permission through use of a name or photograph for promotional purposes. For example, the right prevents the unauthorized use of a celebrity’s likeness in advertising to falsely suggest the endorsement of a product. In that sense, the right of publicity reflects the positive value that can accrue to an individual’s identity through the individual’s efforts, and gives the individual the ability to control how that value is used.