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Fur Flies Over Michelle Obama Image In a PETA Ad

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By Minara El-Rahman on January 06, 2010 12:55 PM

A PETA ad that features a Michelle Obama image alongside Carrie Underwood, Oprah Winfrey and Tyra Banks with the tagline "Fur-Free and Fabulous!" caused the White House to comment that Ms. Obama did not give PETA permission to use her image or likeness. This incident highlights a bevy of issues, most squarely, the "right of publicity" people have against unwanted use of their image to promote products or causes.

According to Yahoo News, the PETA ad is featured in the DC metro area in places such as public transit areas. All of the other celebrities are known to have publicly endorsed the animal rights group PETA. However, the White House released a statement that let the media know that this ad was not sanctioned by the First Lady.

Semonti Stephens, a spokeswoman for the first lady's office told USA Today: "We did not consent to this."   

This gives rise to the question: Is it legal to use the First Lady's image without her permission?

We wrote about issues with using the President's name in order sell fried chicken in a Free Enterprise post here. Typically, U.S. trademark law does not require you to get permission to use the President's (or First Lady's) name, but the USPTO will not allow you to register a trademark that includes the President's name or likeness without written permission from the President (or First Lady) while either is still alive.

Many states have a "right of publicity" law on the books. Uniform federal law does not currently protect the individual's right of publicity. The right of publicity is a person's right to control and profit from the commercial use of his/her name, and likeness/persona. The law protects people from the unauthorized use of their likeness or name. However, since Michelle Obama is part of a political family, her rights may be more curtailed than everyone else's because of First Amendment issues.

In this case, it unlikely that the First Lady will pursue any legal action. The White House simply wanted to make it clear that Ms. Obama did not condone the ad.

PETA released a statement quoted by Yahoo News as saying that the First Lady should be flattered: "We haven't asked the White House to fund or promote the campaign, as they can't do such things, but the fact is that Michelle Obama has issued a statement indicating that she doesn't wear fur, and the world should know that in PETA's eyes, that makes her pretty fabulous."      

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