Rosa Parks's heirs can't stop Target from selling kitsch, Eleventh Circuit holds

Rosa & Raymond Parks Inst. for Self Dev. v. Target Corp., No. 15-10880 (11th Cir. Jan. 4, 2016).

The Civil Rights Movement left many things in its wake—including certain kinds of property. Thus, for example, the Martin Luther King, Jr. estate owns the copyright to the “I Have a Dream” speech—a copyright it licensed for a 2000 cell phone commercial. Which illustrates, perhaps, that protecting intellectual property doesn’t necessarily protect the Movement’s legacy from debasement.

Here, the owners of Rosa Parks’s name and likeness have sued Target for violating Parks’s right to control the use of her identity—her “right of publicity”—by selling plaques, movies, and books featuring Parks. (For the sake of fairness, I should clarify that while some of this stuff is kitsch, some of it definitely isn’t.) The ability to control others’ use of your identity isn’t absolute, since that would present serious First Amendment problems. Rather, under Michigan law, which controls here, everyone has a right to report on matters of public interest—including Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement—without getting anybody else’s permission. This right protects the products that Target sold here, so Parks’s claims can’t succeed.

This, of course, is not the first time that Parks or her heirs have filed a lawsuit to try to protect intellectual property .