Described as a quiet woman, Rosa Parks’ deep reservoirs of inner- strength buoyed the civil rights movement. She fought on many fronts, including the commercial exploitation of her image without permission. The most famous example was Rosa Parks v. LaFace Records over the OutKast song, “Rosa Parks.”
After her death in 2005, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute For Self Development took up her cross but suffered a lose on Monday. The Eleventh Circuit ruled in favor of the defendants in Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute For Self Development v. Target Corporation.
The Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute For Self Development first filed their lawsuit against Target in 2013, claiming the retail chain violated Mrs. Parks’s privacy rights to name and likeness by selling her books and movies without the estate’s permission, including the 2002 made for television film The Rosa Parks Story starring Angela Bassett.
Target won the first round of legal battles under the banner of First Amendment rights. After losing this initial decision in February 2015, an appeal was filed in Michigan, where Rosa Parks lived her final years. The lawsuit was propped on a Michigan law guarding against the appropriation of the commercial value of a person’s identity. While it seemed like adequate protection since Target did not have permission from the Parks Institute, presiding Judge Robin Rosenbaum reversed field with her decision, stating the law is not absolute when it comes to public interest.
In her ruling, Judge Rosenbaum stated, “The use of Rosa Parks’s name and likeness in the books, movie, and plaque are necessary to chronicling and discussing the history of the Civil Rights Movement — matters quintessentially embraced and protected by Michigan’s qualified privilege. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a discussion of the Civil Rights Movement without reference to Parks and her role in it. And Michigan law does not make discussion of these topics of public concern contingent on paying a fee. As a result, all six books, the movie, and the plaque find protection in Michigan’s qualified privilege protecting matters of public interest.”
Matters of public interest is a very broad ruling. This decision furthers mucks up privacy rights of public figures and could create loopholes for taking advantage of other historic Black figures. It is true that Rosa Parks is a sentient figure in the civil rights movement, but the commercialization of her image without consequence is too slippery a slope. Aretha Franklin successfully sued and blocked the showing of the documentary Amazing Grace because the film’s producer did not have her permission. This was due to a contractual obligation but that was still a very rare ruling.
Mrs. Parks should be entitled to some greater protection of her image based on the licensing deals and image protection afforded to other dead entertainers and prominent figures.