Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the Moon, American hero, and UFO witness recently blasted the Topps trading card company in an intellectual property dispute when they used an image of him against his will in a trading card series featuring American heroes. Though it might seem like a ridiculous lawsuit to the card company Topps and others who suggest they’re simply wishing to celebrate his accomplishment, others say Aldrin’s claim is anything but out of this world.
The company is claiming its first amendment rights as a grounds to publish the events of the Lunar Landing as factually as possible. In the report given by the company’s lawyer to the LA Times in late December, Michael Kahn said the litigation came about after the company wished to celebrate the accomplishments of one of the heroes of the event by showing a picture of him in a suit developed by NASA while standing on the moon. Because so much is unique about the case, it will be interesting to see the precedent that comes about as the result of this strange lawsuit.
As a general rule, NASA does not copyright most of its images and the use of its images are generally considered fair in everything from news coverage to personal websites with the exception of the NASA logo which can’t be used in commercial products. NASA has extended the right to use its logo in a number of cases to individuals with permission. But the terms of its agreement specifically do protect the individuals in the photographs themselves. Occasionally if a photograph appears that depicts a certain person and the person disagrees with letting them use the photograph they do have a right to privacy.
First, it should be noted that this is not an issue of copyright. As the images published by NASA are essentially public domain (paid for with tax dollars) but rather the fact that the likeness of Aldrin, although he is in a space suit in the image, can be identified. And if Topps is selling a product that exclusively consists of his image, it is possible that his posing for the photograph could be considered a performance that he has intellectual property rights over. And if Aldrin seems out of line, this case is not without precedent. It could be argued that the case is further helped by the fact that the card is actually about Aldrin himself and being sold directly as a trading card.
The news of Aldrin’s rowe over his trading card come with mixed reviews including several people who say the 80 year old moon-walker is out of bounds. But while the case is yet to be decided by the California courts, many suggest he is well within his rights to protect his identity.
Years ago, NASA released the statement on its official policy regarding fair use of photos. It suggests that while its photos can be used, there should be no suggestion expressed or implied that suggests NASA endorses the product. To put the NASA logo on a box of Tang would require permission from the agency. To use an image of an astronaut drinking tang would require permission from the astronaut. If Tang wanted to use a photograph of its product floating weightless in space in an advertisement, it would be well within its means to do so according to NASA’s policy.
It will be interesting to see what the outcome of this contentious case will be as it will set a precedent for copyrighting of the future. But before we go blasting Buzz for wanting to protect his rights, it should be noted that he did go to extreme measures to get his image on the moon in the first place. We paid for his rocket and his space suit, but at no point did the American tax paying public buy the human being or his likeness.