Lucianne Walkowicz, an accomplished astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, filed suit against Mattel and its American Girl brand alleging that the companies stole their likeness to create an astronaut doll named “Luciana Vega.” On Thursday, February 11, 2021, a Wisconsin federal judge trimmed the suit down to a false endorsement claim. A false endorsement is when there is unauthorized use of a person’s identity or likeness in connection with a good or service, such that consumers would likely be misled into believing that the person has sponsored the good or service. The judge ruled that Walcowicz’s false endorsement claim will go forward as her reputation as a celebrity scientist could cause consumers to be wrongly led to believe that they endorsed the doll, but dismissed the astronomer’s other claims on the grounds that they failed to allege that American Girl used Walcowicz’s name or likeness for advertising or commercial purposes.
Walkowicz is known for their research and presentations on astronomy and Mars exploration. In one of their TED talks, which has been viewed over a million times, Walkowicz discussed their work with NASA studying the constellation Lyra and its brightest star, Vega. This particular TED Talk, paired with the fact that key aspects of the Vega astronaut doll (and its accessories) are related to astronomy and Mars exploration, Judge Peterson said “It’s reasonable to infer from these allegations that American Girl intended to evoke Walkowicz’s public image to lend legitimacy and realism to the Luciana Vega doll.”
American Girl and NASA entered into a contract “to consult on the accuracy of its dolls” in October 2016, and only a week after, Walkowicz presented at a conference where one of the “NASA dolls consultants” was in attendance. American Girl applied for trademarks for the Luciana Vega doll that same year. Upon the doll’s release, Walkowicz claims that they received numerous messages regarding the similarities between them and the doll, as well as inquiries into whether they had endorsed the doll.
Walkowicz filed suit against Mattel and American Girl in April 2020 claiming that the appearance of the American Girl Luciana Vega doll reflected their distinctive personal style, which includes space-themed clothing, “holographic” shoes, and a purple streak in their brown hair. The doll was sold bearing a space-themed dress, “holographic” shoes, and a purple streak in her hair, alongside a model telescope and spacesuit. Though Walkowicz did not argue that the Vega doll is a literal “portrait” or “picture” of them, they did contend that the doll appropriated the astronomer’s likeness in a way that falls within the meaning of Wisconsin’s “privacy law,” which prohibits the unauthorized use of a living person’s “name, portrait, or picture” for advertising purposes or for purposes of trade.
Judge Peterson found that this contention relied on similarities that had nothing to do with visual appearance, and that the single shared characteristic (purple-streaked brown hair) “isn’t enough to support the inference that the doll was based on Walkowicz’s portrait or picture.” The judge also dismissed Walkowicz’s claim that the doll’s name was an unauthorized use of the astronomer’s name because it was not likely that the name would clearly identify them, and the claim that American Girl negligently violated the astronomer’s rights through the use of their name and likeness in the doll.
Walkowicz is represented by Charles Lee Mudd Jr. and Aimee Clare of Mudd Law Offices.
Mattel and American Girl Brands are represented by Kristin Graham Noel, Lori S. Meddings, Bryce A. Loken, Johanna M. Wilbert and Katelin V. Drass of Quarles & Brandy LLP; and Mark S. Lee of Rimon PC.
The case is Lucianne M. Walkowicz v. American Girl Brands LLC et al., case number 3:20-cv-00374, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.
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