The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of ESPN in a legal battle with Steve “Wild Thing” Ray, who wrestled for the Universal Wrestling Federation in the early 90s. ESPN has the footage of Ray’s matches and airs them on ESPN Classic. Ray sued claiming that they violated his publicity and privacy rights under Missouri law.
The case was overseen by a three judge panel. They agreed with the conclusion of the district judge that Ray’s claims are preempted by federal copyright law. They said that in the future, plaintiffs can only avoid preemption by going beyond an attempt to stop the rebroadcast of copyrighted content to claim something more about using their name or image. The opinion states that “ESPN did not use Ray’s likeness or name in an advertisement without his permission to promote its commercial products, and, as the district court correctly noted, Ray’s ‘likenesses could not be detached from the copyrighted performances that were contained in the films.’”
This means that ESPN can use the libraries they own, but if they use Ray’s image to promote the material they have to work out a deal.
This comes days after WWE and ESPN were sued by the father of Eddie Gilbert for publicity rights to his old footage used on TV and the Internet. ESPN is also being sued (along with CBS, FOX, ABC and NBC) over the publicity rights of college athletes. Last year a judge ignored the release forms that athletes sign as a condition of their participation in college sports. This allowed the athletes to go after the broadcasters directly. However, the defense states that the copyright preempts the publicity rights. While the opinion of the 8th Circuit has no bearing in Tennessee, it could eventually set a precedent for future legal battles. However, there could be factors that separate college athletes with wrestlers. You can find the ruling here.