Supreme Court of California Justia
Citation 30 Cal. 4th 881, 69 P.3d 473, 134 Cal. Rptr. 2d 634

Winter v. DC Comics


Filed 6/2/03

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF CALIFORNIA

EDGAR WINTER et al.,
Plaintiffs
and
Appellants,
S108751
v.
Ct.App. 2/4 B121021
DC COMICS et al.,
Los Angeles County
Defendants and Respondents. )
Super. Ct. No. BC145670

Celebrities have a statutory right of publicity by which they can prohibit
others from using their likeness. (Civ. Code, § 3344.) An obvious tension exists
between this right of publicity and the First Amendment to the United States
Constitution. (Comedy III Productions, Inc. v. Gary Saderup, Inc. (2001) 25
Cal.4th 387, 396 (Comedy III).) In Comedy III, we considered when constitutional
free speech rights may trump the statutory right of publicity. We formulated
“what is essentially a balancing test between the First Amendment and the right of
publicity based on whether the work in question adds significant creative elements
so as to be transformed into something more than a mere celebrity likeness or
imitation.” (Id. at p. 391.) In that case, we concluded that lithographs and T-shirts
bearing the likeness of The Three Stooges were not sufficiently transformative to
receive First Amendment protection.
In this case, we apply the same balancing test to comic books containing
characters that evoke musician brothers Johnny and Edgar Winter. We conclude
1



that, in contrast to a drawing of The Three Stooges, the comic books do contain
significant creative elements that transform them into something more than mere
celebrity likenesses. Accordingly, the comic books are entitled to First
Amendment protection.
I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
In the 1990’s, DC Comics published a five-volume comic miniseries
featuring “Jonah Hex,” a fictional comic book “anti-hero.” The series contains an
outlandish plot, involving giant worm-like creatures, singing cowboys, and the
“Wilde West Ranch and Music and Culture Emporium,” named for and patterned
after the life of Oscar Wilde. The third volume ends with a reference to two new
characters, the “Autumn brothers,” and the teaser, “Next: The Autumns of Our
Discontent.” The cover of volume 4 depicts the Autumn brother characters, with
pale faces and long white hair. (See append., post; the Autumn brothers are the
two lower figures.) One brother wears a stovepipe hat and red sunglasses, and
holds a rifle. The second has red eyes and holds a pistol. This volume is entitled,
Autumns of Our Discontent, and features brothers Johnny and Edgar Autumn,
depicted as villainous half-worm, half-human offspring born from the rape of their
mother by a supernatural worm creature that had escaped from a hole in the
ground. At the end of volume 5, Jonah Hex and his companions shoot and kill the
Autumn brothers in an underground gun battle.
Plaintiffs, Johnny and Edgar Winter, well-known performing and recording
musicians originally from Texas, sued DC Comics and others alleging several
causes of action including, as relevant here, appropriation of their names and
likenesses under Civil Code section 3344. They alleged that the defendants
selected the names Johnny and Edgar Autumn to signal readers the Winter
brothers were being portrayed; that the Autumn brothers were drawn with long
white hair and albino features similar to plaintiffs’; that the Johnny Autumn
2

character was depicted as wearing a tall black top hat similar to the one Johnny
Winter often wore; and that the title of volume 4, Autumns of Our Discontent,
refers to the famous Shakespearian phrase, “the winter of our discontent.”1 They
also alleged that the comics falsely portrayed them as “vile, depraved, stupid,
cowardly, subhuman individuals who engage in wanton acts of violence, murder
and bestiality for pleasure and who should be killed.”
Defendants moved for summary judgment, partly relying on the First
Amendment. The trial court granted summary judgment on all causes of action
and entered judgment in defendants’ favor. The Court of Appeal originally
affirmed the judgment. We granted review and held the matter pending our
decision in Comedy III, supra, 25 Cal.4th 387. Later, we remanded the matter for
the Court of Appeal to reconsider its decision in light of Comedy III. This time,
the Court of Appeal affirmed the summary adjudication of all causes of action
other than the one for misappropriation of likeness. On the misappropriation
cause of action, the court concluded that triable issues of fact exist whether or not
the comic books are entitled to protection under the test adopted in Comedy III. It
reversed the judgment and remanded for further proceedings on that cause of
action.
We granted the defendants’ petition for review to decide whether the comic
books are protected under the Comedy III transformative test.
II. DISCUSSION
Civil Code section 3344 provides as relevant: “(a) Any person who
knowingly uses another’s name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness, in any
manner, on or in products, merchandise, or goods, or for purposes of advertising

1
“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of
York.” (Shakespeare, Richard III, act I, scene 1, lines 1-2.) The phrase was also
popularized by the John Steinbeck novel, The Winter of Our Discontent.
3



or selling, or soliciting purchases of, products, merchandise, goods or services,
without such person’s prior consent . . . shall be liable for any damages sustained
by the person or persons injured as a result thereof.”
In Comedy III, supra, 25 Cal.4th 387, the registered owner of all rights to
the former comedy act known as The Three Stooges sued an artist who, without
permission, sold lithographs and T-shirts bearing a likeness of The Three Stooges
reproduced from a charcoal drawing the artist had made.2 We noted that the right
of publicity threatens two purposes of the First Amendment: (1) preserving an
uninhibited marketplace of ideas; and (2) furthering the individual right of self-
expression. “Because celebrities take on public meaning, the appropriation of
their likenesses may have important uses in uninhibited debate on public issues,
particularly debates about culture and values. And because celebrities take on
personal meanings to many individuals in the society, the creative appropriation of
celebrity images can be an important avenue of individual expression.” (Comedy
III, supra, at p. 397.) “[T]he very importance of celebrities in society means that
the right of publicity has the potential of censoring significant expression by
suppressing alternative versions of celebrity images that are iconoclastic,
irreverent, or otherwise attempt to redefine the celebrity’s meaning. [Citations.]
. . . ‘The right of publicity derived from public prominence does not confer a
shield to ward off caricature, parody and satire. Rather, prominence invites
creative comment.’ ” (Ibid., quoting with approval Guglielmi v. Spelling-
Goldberg Productions (1979) 25 Cal.3d 860, 869 (conc. opn. of Bird, C.J.).)

2
Comedy III, supra, 25 Cal.4th 387, involved the celebrities’ successor in
interest suing under Civil Code former section 990 (now Civ. Code, § 3344.1),
rather than the celebrities themselves suing under Civil Code section 3344. (See
Comedy III, supra, at p. 391 & fn. 1.) But, because similar First Amendment
concerns exist under both provisions, the test we developed in that case applies
equally to claims under Civil Code section 3344.
4



Accordingly, we held that some, although not all, uses of celebrity
likenesses are entitled to First Amendment protection. “When artistic expression
takes the form of a literal depiction or imitation of a celebrity for commercial gain,
directly trespassing on the right of publicity without adding significant expression
beyond that trespass, the state law interest in protecting the fruits of artistic labor
outweighs the expressive interests of the imitative artist.” (Comedy III, supra, 25
Cal.4th at p. 405, fn. omitted.) Thus, “depictions of celebrities amounting to little
more than the appropriation of the celebrity’s economic value are not protected
expression under the First Amendment.” (Id. at p. 400.) “The right-of-publicity
holder [may still] enforce the right to monopolize the production of conventional,
more or less fungible, images of the celebrity.” (Id. at p. 405.) “On the other
hand, when a work contains significant transformative elements, it is not only
especially worthy of First Amendment protection, but it is also less likely to
interfere with the economic interest protected by the right of publicity. . . .
[W]orks of parody or other distortions of the celebrity figure are not, from the
celebrity fan’s viewpoint, good substitutes for conventional depictions of the
celebrity and therefore do not generally threaten markets for celebrity memorabilia
that the right of publicity is designed to protect.” (Ibid.)
We developed a test to determine whether a work merely appropriates a
celebrity’s economic value, and thus is not entitled to First Amendment protection,
or has been transformed into a creative product that the First Amendment protects.
The “inquiry is whether the celebrity likeness is one of the ‘raw materials’ from
which an original work is synthesized, or whether the depiction or imitation of the
celebrity is the very sum and substance of the work in question. We ask, in other
words, whether a product containing a celebrity’s likeness is so transformed that it
has become primarily the defendant’s own expression rather than the celebrity’s
likeness. And when we use the word ‘expression,’ we mean something other than
5

the likeness of the celebrity.” (Comedy III, supra, 25 Cal. 4th at p. 406.) These
“transformative elements or creative contributions that require First Amendment
protection are not confined to parody and can take many forms, from factual
reporting [citation] to fictionalized portrayal [citations], from heavyhanded
lampooning [citation] to subtle social criticism [citation].” (Ibid.) “[A]n artist
depicting a celebrity must contribute something more than a ‘ “ ‘merely trivial’ ”
variation, [but must create] something recognizably “ ‘his own’ ” ’ [citation], in
order to qualify for legal protection.” (Id. at p. 408.) “[W]hen an artist’s skill and
talent is manifestly subordinated to the overall goal of creating a conventional
portrait of a celebrity so as to commercially exploit his or her fame, then the
artist’s right of free expression is outweighed by the right of publicity.” (Ibid.)
We made two important cautionary observations. First, “the right of
publicity cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, be a right to control the
celebrity’s image by censoring disagreeable portrayals. Once the celebrity thrusts
himself or herself forward into the limelight, the First Amendment dictates that the
right to comment on, parody, lampoon, and make other expressive uses of the
celebrity image must be given broad scope. The necessary implication of this
observation is that the right of publicity is essentially an economic right. What the
right of publicity holder possesses is not a right of censorship, but a right to
prevent others from misappropriating the economic value generated by the
celebrity’s fame through the merchandising of the ‘name, voice, signature,
photograph, or likeness’ of the celebrity. [Citation.]” (Comedy III, supra, 25
Cal.4th at p. 403.) Second, “in determining whether the work is transformative,
courts are not to be concerned with the quality of the artistic contribution—vulgar
forms of expression fully qualify for First Amendment protection. [Citations.] On
the other hand, a literal depiction of a celebrity, even if accomplished with great
skill, may still be subject to a right of publicity challenge. The inquiry is in a
6

sense more quantitative than qualitative, asking whether the literal and imitative or
the creative elements predominate in the work.” (Id. at p. 407.)
We also cautioned against “wholesale importation of the fair use doctrine
[of copyright law] into right of publicity law,” although it provides some guidance.
(Comedy III, supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 404.) We explained that one factor of the fair
use test, “ ‘the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the
copyrighted work’ (17 U.S.C. § 107(4)), . . . bears directly on this question. We
do not believe, however, that consideration of this factor would usefully
supplement the test articulated here. If it is determined that a work is worthy of
First Amendment protection because added creative elements significantly
transform the celebrity depiction, then independent inquiry into whether or not that
work is cutting into the market for the celebrity’s images . . . appears to be
irrelevant.” (Id. at p. 405, fn. 10.) Moreover, we explained that even if the work’s
marketability and economic value derive primarily from the fame of the celebrity
depicted, the work may still be transformative and entitled to First Amendment
protection. However, if the marketability and economic value of the challenged
work do not derive primarily from the celebrity’s fame, “there would generally be
no actionable right of publicity. When the value of the work comes principally
from some source other than the fame of the celebrity—from the creativity, skill,
and reputation of the artist—it may be presumed that sufficient transformative
elements are present to warrant First Amendment protection.” (Id. at p. 407.)
We then summarized the rule. “In sum, when an artist is faced with a right
of publicity challenge to his or her work, he or she may raise as affirmative
defense that the work is protected by the First Amendment inasmuch as it contains
significant transformative elements or that the value of the work does not derive
primarily from the celebrity’s fame.” (Comedy III, supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 407.)
7

In applying this test in Comedy III itself, we viewed the work in question
and concluded that the right of publicity prevailed. We could “discern no
significant transformative or creative contribution. [The artist’s] undeniable skill
is manifestly subordinated to the overall goal of creating literal, conventional
depictions of The Three Stooges so as to exploit their fame. Indeed, were we to
decide that [the artist’s] depictions were protected by the First Amendment, we
cannot perceive how the right of publicity would remain a viable right other than
in cases of falsified celebrity endorsements. [¶] Moreover, the marketability and
economic value of [the artist’s] work derives primarily from the fame of the
celebrities depicted. While that fact alone does not necessarily mean the work
receives no First Amendment protection, we can perceive no transformative
elements in [the] works that would require such protection.” (Comedy III, supra,
25 Cal.4th at p. 409.)
Application of the test to this case is not difficult. We have reviewed the
comic books and attach a copy of a representative page. We can readily ascertain
that they are not just conventional depictions of plaintiffs but contain significant
expressive content other than plaintiffs’ mere likenesses. Although the fictional
characters Johnny and Edgar Autumn are less-than-subtle evocations of Johnny
and Edgar Winter, the books do not depict plaintiffs literally. Instead, plaintiffs
are merely part of the raw materials from which the comic books were
synthesized. To the extent the drawings of the Autumn brothers resemble
plaintiffs at all, they are distorted for purposes of lampoon, parody, or caricature.
And the Autumn brothers are but cartoon characters—half-human and half-
worm—in a larger story, which is itself quite expressive. The characters and their
portrayals do not greatly threaten plaintiffs’ right of publicity. Plaintiffs’ fans who
want to purchase pictures of them would find the drawings of the Autumn brothers
unsatisfactory as a substitute for conventional depictions. The comic books are
8

similar to the trading cards caricaturing and parodying prominent baseball players
that have received First Amendment protection. (Cardtoons v. Major League
Baseball Players (10th Cir. 1996) 95 F.3d 959, discussed in Comedy III, supra, 25
Cal.4th at p. 406.) Like the trading cards, the comic books “ ‘are no less protected
because they provide humorous rather than serious commentary.’ ” (Comedy III,
supra, at p. 406, quoting Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players, supra, at p.
969.)
Citing Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. v. Penguin Books (9th Cir. 1997) 109
F.3d 1394, plaintiffs argue, and the Court of Appeal agreed, that the comic books
do not technically qualify as parody of plaintiffs (although the Court of Appeal
found they may qualify as parody of Jonah Hex). That case, however, involved
alleged copyright and trademark infringement, allegations not involved here.
Comedy III did not adopt copyright law wholesale. (Comedy III, supra, 25 Cal.4th
at p. 404.) The distinction between parody and other forms of literary expression
is irrelevant to the Comedy III transformative test. It does not matter what precise
literary category the work falls into. What matters is whether the work is
transformative, not whether it is parody or satire or caricature or serious social
commentary or any other specific form of expression.
Plaintiffs also argue, and the Court of Appeal found, that the record
contains evidence that defendants were trading on plaintiffs’ likenesses and
reputations to generate interest in the comic book series and increase sales. This,
too, is irrelevant to whether the comic books are constitutionally protected. The
question is whether the work is transformative, not how it is marketed. If the work
is sufficiently transformative to receive legal protection, “it is of no moment that
the advertisements may have increased the profitability of the [work].” (Guglielmi
v. Spelling-Goldberg Productions, supra, 25 Cal.3d at p. 873 (conc. opn. of Bird,
C.J.).) If the challenged work is transformative, the way it is advertised cannot
9

somehow make it nontransformative. Here, as we have explained, the comic
books are transformative and entitled to First Amendment protection.3
Accordingly, we conclude that the Court of Appeal erred in finding the
existence of triable issues of fact. “[B]ecause unnecessarily protracted litigation
would have a chilling effect upon the exercise of First Amendment rights, speedy
resolution of cases involving free speech is desirable.” (Good Government Group
of Seal Beach, Inc. v. Superior Court (1978) 22 Cal.3d 672, 685; see also Baker v.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner (1986) 42 Cal.3d 254, 269; Aisenson v. American
Broadcasting Co. (1990) 220 Cal.App.3d 146, 154.) As in Comedy III, supra, 25
Cal.4th 387, courts can often resolve the question as a matter of law simply by
viewing the work in question and, if necessary, comparing it to an actual likeness
of the person or persons portrayed. Because of these circumstances, an action
presenting this issue is often properly resolved on summary judgment or, if the
complaint includes the work in question, even demurrer. This is one of those
cases.

3
Plaintiffs also claim that the way the comic books were advertised is itself
actionable, for example, by falsely implying plaintiffs endorsed the product. (See
Comedy III, supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 396.) This question is beyond the scope of our
grant of review and the Court of Appeal’s opinion, which focused on whether the
comic books are constitutionally protected. We leave it to the Court of Appeal on
remand to decide whether plaintiffs have preserved a cause of action based solely
on the advertising and, if so, whether that cause of action is susceptible to
summary adjudication.
10



III. CONCLUSION
The artist in Comedy III, supra, 25 Cal.4th 387, essentially sold, and
devoted fans bought, pictures of The Three Stooges, not transformed expressive
works by the artist. Here, by contrast, defendants essentially sold, and the buyers
purchased, DC Comics depicting fanciful, creative characters, not pictures of the
Winter brothers. This makes all the difference. The comic books here are entitled
to First Amendment protection.
Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal and remand
the matter for further proceedings consistent with our opinion.
CHIN,
J.
WE CONCUR:

GEORGE, C.J.
KENNARD, J.
BAXTER, J.
WERDEGAR, J.
BROWN, J.
MORENO, J.

11



12

See next page for addresses and telephone numbers for counsel who argued in Supreme Court.

Name of Opinion Winter v. DC Comics
__________________________________________________________________________________

Unpublished Opinion
Original Appeal
Original Proceeding
Review Granted

XXX 99 Cal.App.4th 458
Rehearing Granted

__________________________________________________________________________________

Opinion No.

S108751
Date Filed: June 2, 2003
__________________________________________________________________________________

Court:

Superior
County: Los Angeles
Judge: Ronald E. Cappai

__________________________________________________________________________________

Attorneys for Appellant:

Gipson, Hoffman & Pancione, Julia L. Ross, Corey J. Spivey; Greenberg Traurig and Vincent H. Chieffo
for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Victoria T. Vaught and Steven Springer for National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation as
Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiffs and Appellants.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Attorneys for Respondent:

Weissmann, Wolff, Bergman, Coleman & Silverman, Weissmann, Wolff, Bergman, Coleman, Silverman &
Holmes, Weissmann, Wolff, Bergman, Coleman, Grodin & Evall, Michael Bergman, Anjani Mandavia and
Julie B. Waldman for Defendants and Respondents.

Eugene Volokh; David S. Welkowitz and Tyler T. Ochoa as Amici Curiae on behalf of Defendants and
Respondents.

Loeb & Loeb, Douglas E. Mirell and Joseph Geisman for the Motion Picture Association of America, Inc.,
Association of American Publishers, Inc., Authors Guild, Inc., Publishers Marketing Association, Comic
Book Legal Defense Fund, Dramatists Guild of America, Inc., PEN American Center, American
Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and Freedom to Read Foundation as Amici Curiae on behalf of
Defendants and Respondents.

13



Counsel who argued in Supreme Court (not intended for publication with opinion):

Vincent H. Chieffo
Greenberg Traurig
2450 Colorado Avenue, Suite 400 East
Santa Monica, CA 90404
(310) 586-7700

Michael Bergman
Weissmann, Wolff, Bergman, Coleman, Grodin & Evall
9665 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 900
Beverly Hills, CA 90212-2345
(310) 858-7888

14


This case presents the following issue: Are fanciful and transformative depictions of popular musicians in a comic book protected by the First Amendment?

Opinion Information
Date:Citation:Docket Number:
Mon, 06/02/200330 Cal. 4th 881, 69 P.3d 473, 134 Cal. Rptr. 2d 634S108751

Parties
1Dc Comics (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Anjani Mandavia
Weissmann, Wolff Et Al
9665 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 900
Beverly Hills, CA

2Dc Comics (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Michael Bergman
Weissmann Wolff Bergman Coleman & Silverman
9665 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 900
Beverly Hills, CA

3Dc Comics (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Julie Beth Ephraim
Attorney at Law
9665 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 900
Beverliy Hills, CA

4Winter, Edgar (Plaintiff and Appellant)
Represented by Vincent H. Chieffo
Greenberg Traurig LLP
2450 Colorado Avenue, Suite 400E
Santa Monica, CA

5Welkowitz, David S. (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Prof. David S. Welkowitz
Whittier Law School
3333 Harbor Blvd.
Costa Mesa, CA

6Ochoa, Tyler T. (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Tyler T. Ochoa
Associate Professor Whittier Law School
3333 Harbor Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA

7Volokh, Eugene (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Eugene Volokh
Univ. of Calif Law School
405 Hilgard Ave
Los Angeles, CA

8Motion Picture Association Of America, Et Al (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Douglas E. Mirell
Loeb & Loeb
10100 Santa Monica Bl #2200
Los Angeles, CA


Opinion Authors
OpinionJustice Ming W. Chin

Disposition
Jun 2 2003Opinion: Reversed

Dockets
Jul 29 2002Petition for review filed
  counsel for resps. DC Comics; Joe R. Lansdale; Timothy Truman; Sam Glanzman; Time Warner Entertainment Co., LP; and Warner Communications, Inc.,
Jul 30 2002Record requested
 
Jul 31 2002Received Court of Appeal record
  in a Tee-band instead of doghouse..
Aug 16 2002Answer to petition for review filed
  appellant Edgar Winter and Johnny Winter
Aug 27 20022nd record request
  Overnight Mail
Aug 28 2002Received Court of Appeal record
  4 doghouses - LA office. Shipping to SF via o/n.
Sep 11 2002Petition for Review Granted (civil case)
  Votes: George, CJ., Kennard, Baxter, Werdegar, Chin, Brown and Moreno, JJ.
Sep 18 20022nd record request
  remaining doghouses (Overnight Mail)
Sep 24 2002Request for extension of time filed
  to file opening brief/merits. [stipulation submission]
Sep 24 2002Received Court of Appeal record
  4 doghouses sent overnight to Amye (Clerk's Transcripts 1-14)
Sep 25 2002Certification of interested entities or persons filed
  by counsel for appellant
Sep 26 2002Certification of interested entities or persons filed
  counsel for respondents DC Comics et al.,
Sep 26 2002Request for extension of time filed
  to file opening/brief merits counsel for resps. DC Comics et al.,
Sep 27 2002Extension of time granted
  Respondent's time to serve and file the opening brief is extended to and including November 11, 2002. No further extensions of time are contemplated.
Oct 8 2002Request for extension of time filed
  by counsel for appellants (E. Winter and J. Winter) to January 10, 2003 to file respondent's brief.
Oct 16 2002Order filed
  The application of appellant for extension of time to January 10, 2003, is denied without prejudice to renewing the application after the opening brief on the merits has been filed.
Nov 12 2002Opening brief on the merits filed
  respondents DC Comics, Joe R. Lansdale, Timothy Truman, Sam Glanzman, Time Warner Entertainment Co., L.P. and Warner Communications Inc.,
Nov 19 2002Request for extension of time filed
  counsel for appellant (E. Winter) requests extension to January 13, 2003, to file the respondents brief.
Nov 20 2002Extension of time granted
  Appellant's time to serve and file the respondent's brief is extended to and including January 13, 2003. No further extensions of time are contemplated.
Jan 14 2003Answer brief on the merits filed
  by counsel for respondents (Edgar and Johnny Winter) (40k)
Jan 15 2003Request for extension of time filed
  to file Reply Brief/Merits asking to February 24, 2003
Jan 16 2003Received:
  from counsel for respondent (Winter) Errata to Answer Brief
Jan 17 2003Extension of time granted
  Respondent's time to serve and file the reply brief is extended to and including February 24, 2003. NO FURTHER EXTENSIONS OF TIME ARE CONTEMPLATED.
Feb 24 2003Reply brief filed (case fully briefed)
  by respondent DC Comics, et al.
Mar 6 2003Case ordered on calendar
  4-1-03, 9am, L.A.
Mar 13 2003Filed:
  Resps' (DC Comics) application for continuance of oral argument date.
Mar 14 2003Note:
  Request for continuance denied. Counsel being notified by letter.
Mar 21 2003Received application to file amicus curiae brief; with brief
  of The Motion Picture Association of America, Inc., ,Association of American Publishers, Inc., Authors Guild, Inc. [supporting respondents D.C. Comics, Etc.,] *** granted *** order being prepared.
Mar 21 2003Received application to file amicus curiae brief; with brief
  from law professors David Welkowitz, Tyler Ochoa and Eugene Volokh.
Mar 26 2003Permission to file amicus curiae brief granted
  by David Welkowitz, Tyler T. Ochoa and Eugene Volokh (law professors). Answers may be filed w/in 20 days.
Mar 26 2003Amicus Curiae Brief filed by:
  Profs. David Welkowitz, et al. in support of resps.
Mar 28 2003Permission to file amicus curiae brief granted
  The Motion Picture Association of America, Inc, et al
Mar 28 2003Amicus Curiae Brief filed by:
  The Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. et al., in support of respondents is hereby granted. An answer thereto may be served and filed by any party within twenty days of the filing of the brief.
Apr 1 2003Cause argued and submitted
 
Jun 2 2003Opinion filed: Judgment reversed
  and remanded OPINION BY: Chin, J --- joined by George, C.J., Kennard, Baxter, Werdegar, Brown, Moreno, JJ.
Jul 3 2003Remittitur issued (civil case)
 
Jul 10 2003Returned record
  to CA 2/4 (6 doghouses)
Jul 15 2003Received:
  receipt for remittitur from CA 2/4

Briefs
Nov 12 2002Opening brief on the merits filed
 
Jan 14 2003Answer brief on the merits filed
 
Feb 24 2003Reply brief filed (case fully briefed)
 
Mar 26 2003Amicus Curiae Brief filed by:
 
Mar 28 2003Amicus Curiae Brief filed by:
 
If you'd like to submit a brief document to be included for this opinion, please submit an e-mail to the SCOCAL website
May 30, 2011
Annotated by Elizabeth Boggs

Annotation by Elizabeth "Betsy" Boggs

Facts

During the 1990s, DC Comics published a five-volume comic miniseries featuring "Jonah Hex." The court characterized the series as featuring an "outlandish" plot, including "giant worm-like creatures [and] singing cowboys . . . ." The series involved characters called Johnny and Edgar Autumn, the "Autumn Brothers." The Autumn Brothers of the series were "villainous half-worm, half-human offspring" with pale faces and long white hair. One of the characters wore a stovepipe hat and red sunglasses and held a rifle; the other had red eyes and carried a pistol. The title of Volume 4 of the series was "Autumns of Our Discontent."

Plaintiffs Johnny and Edgar Winter are "well-known performing and recording musicians originally from Texas." Both brothers are albino and have long white hair. Johnny Winter often wore a tall black top hat.

Procedural History

The Winter brothers sued DC Comics, alleging, among other things, appropriation of their names and likenesses under California Civil Code Section 3344. The Winter brothers alleged that the names of the characters were chosen to signal that the Autumn brothers were being portrayed and that the title "Autumns of our Discontent" referred to "The Winter of Our Discontent," a line in Shakespeare's Richard III and the title of a Steinbeck novel. They further alleged that the characters were drawn to resemble the Winter brothers, pointing to the characters' pale skin, long white hair, and the top hat worn by Johnny Autumn. The Winter brothers alleged that the comic falsely portrayed them as "vile, depraved, stupid, cowardly, subhuman individuals who engage in wanton acts of violence, murder and bestiality for pleasure and who should be killed."

Defendants moved for summary judgment, in part on First Amendment grounds. The trial court granted defendants summary judgment on all causes of action. The Court of Appeal originally affirmed the judgment. The California Supreme Court granted review and held the matter pending its decision in Comedy III Productions, Inc. v. Gary Saderup, Inc., 25 Cal. 4th 387, 396, 106 Cal. Rptr.2d 126, 21 P.3d 797 (2001) (Comedy III). The Supreme Court later remanded the case to the Court of Appeal to reconsider in light of Comedy III.

On its second review, the Court of Appeal affirmed the summary adjudication of all causes of action but reversed and remanded the claim for misappropriation of likeness, finding that triable issues of fact existed as to whether or not the comic books were entitled to protection under the test adopted in Comedy III. The Supreme Court granted defendants' petition for review.

Issues

Does the fanciful depiction of celebrities in a comic book qualify for First Amendment protection? Under the California Supreme Court's test in Comedy III, are creators of such a depiction entitled to summary judgment in their favor on First Amendment grounds?

Holding

The character depictions in the comic books at issue "contain significant creative elements that transform them into something more than mere celebrity likenesses" and are thus protected under the First Amendment.

Analysis

The court relied on Comedy III for the proposition that an individual's right of publicity must be balanced against First Amendment protection for the speaker. The court paraphrased that under Comedy III, "some, although not all, uses of celebrity likenesses are entitled to First Amendment protection." The key element in determining whether a depiction of a celebrity qualifies for First Amendment protection is whether the use is "literal depiction or imitation" or if it instead contains "significant transformative elements."

The Court discussed the relevant public policy concerns on both sides: that the statutory creation of the right of publicity protects "the fruits of artistic labor" but that the First Amendment safeguards the imitative artist's expressive interests. The Court emphasized that "Once the celebrity thrusts himself or herself forward into the limelight, the First Amendment dictates that the right to comment on, parody, lampoon, and make other expressive uses of the celebrity image must be given broad scope."

The court quoted Comedy III for the rule: "In sum, when an artist is faced with a right of publicity challenge to his or her work, he or she may raise as [an] affirmative defense that the work is protected by the First Amendment inasmuch as it contains significant transformative elements or that the value of the work does not derive primarily from the celebrity's fame." (Comedy III, supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 407, 106 Cal.Rptr.2d 126, 21 P.3d 797.)

While the Court noted that the fair use doctrine of copyright law could "provide[] some guidance," it is not dispositive in cases involving appropriation of license. The Court noted that unlike in copyright and trademark, the Comedy III balancing test was not concerned with whether the depiction qualified as parody or not in determining whether the depiction is transformative. Procedurally, the Court stated that the First Amendment assertion is an affirmative defense.

After reviewing its previous jurisprudence on the balancing test between the right of publicity and the First Amendment, the Court concluded that application in this case was "not difficult." The Court commented on the fact that the Autumn Brothers characters were not literal likenesses of the Winter Brothers but distortions for lampoon, parody, or caricature in a larger, expressive story; the Court further recognized that the comic characters could hardly serve as a substitute for a fan who wanted images of the Winter Brothers.

The Court finally stated that summary judgment was appropriate in such cases because of the potentially chilling effect of protracted fact-based litigation, noting that a judge could easily examine the work in question and, if necessary, compare it to an actual likeness of the portrayed plaintiffs.

Tags

albinism, albino, art, artistic process, celebrity status, comic book, comics, DC Comics, Edgar Winter, First Amendment, free speech, graphic novels, Johnny Winter, Jonah Hex, misappropriation of likeness, protection of personality, right of publicity, transformation, transformative