Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Former Players’ Antitrust Claims over NFL’s Use of Their Images Dismissed

This posting was written by Jeffrey May, Editor of CCH Trade Regulation Reporter.

Former professional football players failed to plausibly allege that the National Football League (NFL) and its member teams restrained trade in the market for the players’ images and likenesses by not allowing them the rights to films and images from the games in which they played, the federal district court in St. Paul, Minnesota, has ruled. The players failed to establish any concerted action that was illegal under the Sherman Act.

The players relied “heavily, almost exclusively,” on the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in American Needle, Inc. v. NFL, 2010-1 Trade Cases ¶77,019, 130 S. Ct. 2201, the court explained. However, the decision did not support their claims. In American Needle, the Supreme Court held that the NFL and its member teams were capable of conspiring to restrain trade for NFL-related merchandise that each team owned separately from the NFL.

The historical game footage at issue in the current matter was owned by the NFL either alone or in conjunction with the teams involved in the game being filmed. These entities had to cooperate to produce and sell these images; no one entity could do it alone, according to the court. The NFL and its teams were capable of conspiring to market each team’s individually-owned property, but not property the teams and the NFL could only collectively own.

Moreover, the former players did not explain what market might exist in game footage that featured only that footage to which any player can claim to be individually entitled—a single player’s image without any NFL logos or marks. Thus, even if there was concerted action to restrain trade in the former players' images, that agreement was "necessary to market the product" and was therefore not illegal.

If the NFL refused to pay the former players for the use of their images in its copyrighted material, then the former players might have a claim for a violation of their right of publicity. However, this was a royalties issue, not an antitrust issue. Therefore, the former players’ complaint was dismissed with prejudice.

The June 13 decision is Washington v. National Football League, 2012-1 Trade Cases ¶77,926.

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