The Selling of the President

If you watched any TV over the holidays, it was impossible to avoid the flood of ads for Barack Obama plates, coins and other tacky commemoratives.

Just be thankful you don’t live in DC, where the president-elect’s image has been appropriated by every marketer in town, including Capitol City Brewing which is using it to promote its InaugurAle.

The common wisdom is that since Obama is an elected official his image is in the public domain, making it fair game for anyone.

But that’s not true. After doing some research, and exchanging e-mails with attorney and Indiana University professor Jonathan Faber, I’ve learned that Obama has the same Right of Publicity that you and I do. (And the same right that celebrities work so diligently to protect.)

So, no, those coin and plate and t-shirt and beer companies don’t have Obama’s permission to use his image on commercial products, even though they need to. The difference is that most elected officials believe that pursuing these offenders would create more ill will than good.

The law is more complex than that, especially when it comes to political statements and parodies. But for the most part, what you’re seeing is just good old do-it-if-you-can-get-away-with-it capitalism.