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Schwarzenegger Isn't Buying It

Actor goes after an Ohio car dealer for using his likeness without permission.

January 22, 2003|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

It's a small photo, the size of a thumbprint, all but lost amid the images of minivans and trucks and color headlines blaring "33-Hour Month-End Countdown!"

But for actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the unauthorized use of his picture in a newspaper ad for an Ohio car dealership was serious enough to warrant a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.

The star of the "Terminator" movies and expected Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2006 is demanding that Fred Martin Motor Co. and its ad agency pay him more than $20 million for using his photo to hawk cars in an advertisement that ran in the Akron Beacon Journal.

The suit, which was filed in federal court last summer, claims the car dealership reproduced his image without his permission and violated Schwarzenegger's self-imposed ban on appearing in commercials in the United States.

"Such activity diminishes his hard-earned and well-deserved reputation as a major motion picture star and risks the potential for overexposure of his image to the public," according to the complaint filed by the actor's attorneys.

The furor over the photo already has generated thousands of dollars in legal costs, a tense deposition session in Cleveland and five volumes of legal documents in U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles.

The case -- A. Schwarzenegger vs. Fred Martin Motor Co. et al -- also demonstrates the litigious nature of the man many California Republicans are hoping will run for governor in the next election.

With his attorney Martin D. Singer, a Hollywood lawyer who represents an array of A-list actors, Schwarzenegger has filed a series of multimillion-dollar lawsuits in the last decade, seeking to protect his reputation and squelch misuse of his image.

He has been overwhelmingly successful.

The actor forced a Canadian workout club to stop using the name "Arnold's Gym," won damages from a British newspaper that claimed he admired Nazi views, and got an apology and an undisclosed settlement from the Globe after the tabloid ran a story claiming the movie star's heart was a "ticking time bomb."

But Schwarzenegger's lawsuit against Fred Martin Motor stands out, both because of the obscure use of his image and the amount of money the actor is demanding in compensation.

"Is there a violation of the law? There may well be," said Robert Dudnik, a veteran entertainment litigator in Los Angeles.

"But I think that if, at trial, they ask for $20 million, the jury would be offended, given the inconsequential nature of the use.

"The jury will likely think he's a billionaire, and why are they going to want to give a billionaire millions of dollars for a small ad that ran in the Akron Beacon Journal?"

Singer said Schwarzenegger is asking for $20 million because the actor has been offered similar sums to do commercial endorsements in the United States.

"You don't have the right to use someone's photo to induce customers to buy products without paying the price .... And that is his value," Singer said.

"It is very important for somebody like Arnold Schwarzenegger to protect his likeness, This was a very blatant misrepresentation and it's irrelevant whether it occurred in Akron, Ohio, or New York."

In Hollywood, lawsuits and threats of lawsuits over misappropriation of likeness are relatively common, though generally not as large as the one Schwarzenegger has brought against the Akron car dealer and its advertising agents.

For the actor, however, the bigger question is whether the legal tactics of Hollywood will work in the world of politics.

He has responded previously to political volleys with talk of litigation. When Garry South, Gov. Gray Davis' political strategist, circulated a 2001 Premiere magazine article that claimed the actor had committed marital infidelities, Singer threatened legal action against him and the magazine.

"This you have done at your peril," Singer wrote to South in a five-page letter accusing South of defamatory statements.

Singer also warned that he would sue for copyright infringement if South released portions of the letter to the media.

Soon afterward, South said, an attorney for Schwarzenegger's wife, NBC News reporter Maria Shriver, called him to relate how upset she was as well.

"I was just astonished by what I considered a gross overreaction to what was a minor provocation," South said.

"Does that indicate to you somebody with a thick enough skin ... to run for public office?"

Some GOP strategists also are worried that Schwarzenegger believes he can control his political image with the same techniques he has used to cultivate his movie star persona.

"He has no appreciation that taking the entertainment culture and forcing the rules that apply there to the world of politics doesn't work," said a Republican consultant familiar with the actor.

"That is what has to be adjusted, that mind-set of intimidation. That will be one of toughest aspects of the road ahead of him."

Schwarzenegger did not respond to calls for comment.

The rules and expectations are different in Hollywood.

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