During a White House ceremony honoring the Boston Red Sox for the team’s recent World Series victory, David Ortiz took a picture of himself with President Obama. He later posted the picture on his Twitter feed. Samsung, who has an endorsement deal with Ortiz, re-tweeted the picture to its 5.26 million followers, and later noted that the picture was taken with a Samsung phone. Although the president may have been smiling broadly in the photo, his legal team certainly wasn’t smiling after Samsung’s tweet.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the president’s legal team objects to the company’s commercial use of the photograph. “As a rule, the White House objects to attempts to use the president’s likeness for commercial purposes. And we certainly object in this case.” (As we’ve posted before, this isn’t the first time the White House has objected to the use of the President’s image by a company.) Carney declined to say whether White House lawyers have officially asked the company to stop using the photo.
It may seem like re-tweeting a picture that features a celebrity, such as the President, is a fairly innocent activity. And it may be, if you’re tweeting as a consumer. But when a company does the same thing, the action could constitute a violation of the celebrity’s right of publicity. The risk can be even higher with elected politicians – especially with the President of the United States – because the false affiliation and endorsement claims are arguably stronger than for entertainers who are not in the business of endorsing causes and issues, as politicians do on a regular basis. As we noted last month, companies need to be careful about showing or mentioning celebrities in ads. This incident demonstrates that even using an image in your tweet could lead to complaints.