The journey of Easy Rider is set to become less smooth. On July 16, 2013, Peter Fonda, co-star, co-producer, and co-writer of the iconic film, filed suit against Dolce & Gabbana in the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles. He alleges that the company appropriated images of Mr. Fonda from the film, and used the Easy Rider logo without his permission. These images were printed on T-shirts advertised and sold by the company for $300.
The film Easy Rider was produced in 1969 and concerns a group who “went looking for America” on motorcycles. They certainly found the American public, with the film obtaining cult status despite critics’ earlier predictions. The film became synonymous with American counterculture and catalyzed the shift from “Old Hollywood” towards “New Wave” American cinema. One of the most well-known scenes in the movie involves Mr. Fonda riding a motorcycle as his biker character, Wyatt. This scene is at the center of the controversy as images of it have been used on the T-shirts sold by Dolce & Gabbana.
Mr. Fonda alleges that the company used his likeness and images — and, in some cases, his name — to make commercial gains, profiting from the worldwide fame the movie has enjoyed, Mr. Fonda’s image and likeness being recognized as a result of his role therein. He asserts two grounds of action, namely violation of the Californian Civil Code §3344 for use of another’s name, image, and likeness on merchandise and for advertising, and common law misappropriation of name, image, and likeness.
Mr. Fonda claims he has suffered actual damages as a result of Dolce & Gabbana’s violation of his right of publicity, claiming a minimum of $300,000 compensation for the appropriation of his name, image, and likeness without his permission. The suit adds to Dolce & Gabbana’s legal woes, with the company’s two owners presently facing jail time in Italy for tax evasion.
The suit is one among many examples of retailers being hit with lawsuits for the unauthorized use of the names, images, and likenesses of celebrities: Rihanna’s suit against Topshop for the use of her image and Jersey Shore star Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino’s suit against Abercrombie & Fitch Co. over its “The Fitchuation” T-shirts being other pertinent examples. Although the suit ironically runs counter to the spirit of freedom and rebelliousness the film embodied, it sends a strong message to retailers that they must obtain permission to use the name, image, and likeness of celebrities and other public figures before using them for commercial purposes, unless there is a fair use or other legally justifiable reason for using them.