Putting a price on fame?

The right of publicity gives celebrities the right to control the commercial use of their identities, but when they use it to block news reporting or critical commentary, important constitutional freedoms are put at risk. 

The conflicts between the First Amendment and publicity rights are of particular interest to Kathy Olson, associate professor of journalism and communication, who is studying the issue with support from a New Directions Fellowship.

Olson's work has focused on intellectual property law and its impact on free speech. Her primary research has concentrated on issues surrounding copyright, with an emphasis on the mechanisms that help strike a balance between property rights and protection of First Amendment values. Olson plans to expand on this research to investigate the right of publicity, focusing on how the law of publicity rights is influenced by economic, historical and political factors and how it reflects societal values.

“The Constitution requires Congress to set limits on the rights of copyright owners in order to protect the public domain,” Olson said.  “But the right of publicity exists at the state level and is rooted in the common-law right of privacy, so First Amendment-based protections are inconsistent.

“The right of publicity is basically the idea that your persona is property that can be bought and sold. This brings up issues of personal identity and cultural commodification that transcend legal doctrine. It’s something new for me in terms of my research, and I find it fascinating.”

Funded by the College of Arts and Sciences, New Directions Fellowships provide two years of support ($10,000 of support per year) to active scholars who would like to pursue a significant new direction in their research. 

Department of Journalism and Communication |  Coppee Hall  |  33 Coppee Drive  |  Bethlehem, PA 18015  |  phone 610-758-4180  |  fax 610-758-6198