Complaint says company keeps pushing his buttons

The Right Stuff

As a decorated Air Force pilot, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound, and an Air Force leader and educator for decades, Chuck Yeager is justifiably proud of his accomplishments and public profile. Not everyone gets to be played by Sam Shepard in the movies, after all.

But in a recent trademark infringement, false endorsement and right-of-publicity case, Yeager maintains that his “valuable, unique identity and commodity” were threatened by the actions of European aerospace giant Airbus. This is not the first time Yeager has enforced his rights of publicity against an advertiser.

The complaint, filed in the Central District of California, centers on a blurb published on the Airbus website by its defense industry subsidiary in June 2017. The piece promotes the company’s Airbus Racer, a “High-Speed and Cost-Effective Helicopter.” Yeager claims that the company used the following text in the promotional piece:

“‘Seventy years ago, [American test pilot] Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier,’ said Guillaume Faury, CEO of Airbus Helicopters, at the Racer announcement press conference. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘we’re trying to break the cost barrier. It cannot be “speed at any cost.”’”

The Takeaway

That’s as ham-handed as name dropping can be, but does it require a legal rebuke? Well, as we often counsel, advertisers need to be very cautious in invoking celebrity personas, and there is a long line of wins against advertisers by celebrities claiming commercial misappropriation.

This case may have just as much to do with Yeager’s uncomfortable history with Airbus as it does with the blurb. In the complaint, Yeager notes an earlier encounter with the company – a 2008 visit to an unspecified property owned by the company. Prior to the visit, Yeager maintains, “Airbus was informed that … no video was permitted to be used for sales or advertising unless a deal setting the terms of same was entered into … .” Nonetheless, the company wound up using the video in a marketing effort sometime later (the complaint is short on details).

Furthermore, Airbus allegedly approached Yeager with an offer to use his name in press releases. Yeager demanded $1 million for the use, and Airbus backed off.

We know what these allegations are meant to do – establish that Airbus has a history of flouting Yeager’s requests and that the company feels the need to glom on to his sterling image and reputation. But a blurb is different from a video still, and courts have found a right-to-publicity violation for less. We will be watching to see if this settles, and if not, how the court addresses the claim.