A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Tag: NBC

Skating Over Legal Terminology

Oksana Baiul

By Asher Hawkins

Dressing up in spandex and sequins. Strapping on a pair of ice skates. Performing a carefully choreographed routine to the smooth-jazz stylings of Kenny G. Sound embarrassing?

For a professional figure skater, that’s just another day at the office. In fact, the pro-skater would probably object if it were suggested that she had agreed to engage in such a performance, but then pulled a no-show at the last minute. A couple of stunts like that, and suddenly you’re the LiLo of the skating-show world.

Earlier this month, Ukraine-born former Olympian Oksana Baiul sued NBC and a skating-show production company whose events apparently are regularly broadcast by the network, in state court in Manhattan, alleging that her name and likeness were used in promotional campaigns for a pair of recent skate shows, even though she had never officially signed on as a performer for the events.

Reports about Ms. Baiul’s suit by the Associated Press, New York Daily News, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and others described the gist of her allegations, and readers would be forgiven for thinking, after reading these accounts, that Ms. Baiul’s claims primarily involve contract or defamation law.

As it happens, the key doctrine on which her complaint actually relies is a legal concept commonly (and sometimes inaccurately) referred to as “right of publicity.”

Some background:

Do you even remember Ms. Baiul? At the age of 16, she overcame injury during the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer to beat out American sweetheart Nancy Kerrigan for the gold. Her unfortunate hairstyle and outfit choices may have made Tonya Harding look like a fashion icon by comparison, but oh, how she could lutz!

Ms. Baiul’s post-Olympic career has had its ups and downs; in the late 1990s, national media regularly reported on her apparent struggles with alcohol abuse. Still, she continues to perform in skating shows.

According to her lawsuit, in mid-2011 skating-show production company Disson Skating contacted an agent with whom she was affiliated and offered to pay Ms. Baiul to star in two upcoming shows. The first show was to take place in December 2011 in Greenville, S.C., and feature the progressive-rock band Styx (of “Mr. Roboto” fame.) The show with Kenny G was to take place in January 2012 in the saxophonist’s hometown of Seattle. Ms. Baiul claims that although she never signed a contract with the production company – and ultimately turned down the offer – the shows’ organizers launched a print-and-radio marketing campaign that included Ms. Baiul’s name and likeness and suggested that she would be appearing in the shows. Because that didn’t happen, and because the defendants never issued a correcting press release, Ms. Baiul was left looking like a two-time no-show, and suffered irreparable damage to her reputation, her lawsuit contends.

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If something disparaging is said about a Z-list celebrity, has any harm been done?

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