02 October, 2008

Supreme Court History

In response to the Know Your Supreme Court History meme, I offer Roberson v. Rochester Folding Box Company. Admittedly, it's a New York Court of Appeals decision, not a U.S. Supreme Court decision, but it has stood the test of time.

What happened

"The complaint alleges that the Franklin Mills Co., one of the defendants, was engaged in a general milling business and in the manufacture and sale of flour; that before the commencement of the action, without the knowledge or consent of plaintiff, defendants, knowing that they had no right or authority so to do, had obtained, made, printed, sold and circulated about 25,000 lithographic prints, photographs and likenesses of plaintiff, made in a manner particularly set up in the complaint; that upon the paper upon which the likenesses were printed and above the portrait there were printed, in large, plain letters, the words, "Flour of the Family," and below the portrait in large capital letters..."

In other words, a company used a woman's picture to advertise their product, but it didn't ask her permission or offer her payment for the picture and/or the endorsement.

Why it's important

Roberson is perhaps the bedrock privacy case in American history. There is no obvious precedent: it is the first case to set the standard that "identity" is a legal object and that it is legally owned by its subject. The decision states that,

"It may be said in the first place that the theory upon which this action is predicated is new."

The case also demonstrates that even though privacy rights are not explicitly enumerated in the Constitution, they can still trump the First Amendment. It's important that the plaintiff did not allege libel, merely that they misappropriated her likeness.