In a 23-page opinion, Judge Denny Chin of the Southern District of New York ruled yesterday that confectioner Mars inc. did not violate the right of publicity of well-known Times Square entertainer Robert Burck, AKA the Naked Cowboy.
Mars had run a billboard video of its iconic M&M cartoon character in a variety of NY-centric contexts, including one scene in which the character was “wearing only a white cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and underpants, and carrying a guitar–Burck’s regular get-up.
New York’s publicity law (Sections 50 and 51 of the state’s Civil Rights Code) is among the most stringent in the nation, applying to “any recognizable likeness” of a person used in a commercial context, making the win an especially sweet one for Mars. An M&M in underpants and cowboy hat, said the court, was simply not a depiction of Burck.
The court, however, refused to render summary judgment on the Naked Cowboy’s Lanham Act claim of false endorsement, on the grounds that passers-by might confuse the M&M video for the Cowboy’s (somewhat dubious?) endorsement. (Earlier coverage).