Model and meme icon Kelleth Cuthbert (real name Kelly Steinbach) became an overnight sensation as “Fiji Water Girl” after photobombing celebrities on the Golden Globes red carpet in January. Now, she is seeking to recover against Fiji Water Company and its parent company, The Wonderful Company, for allegedly misappropriating her likeness and violating her right of publicity following her viral success. According to the suit, filed recently in the Los Angeles Superior Court, Fiji Water initiated a marketing campaign using her image and “Fiji Water Girl” moniker on cardboard cutouts. Cuthbert alleges in the complaint that Fiji first attempted to offer “gifts to entice” the model to sign away her rights, and also that Fiji “pressured Steinbach into video recording a fake signing of a fake document to simulate Steinbach signing on as a Fiji Water Ambassador.” Fiji, in a later statement claimed “[t]his lawsuit is frivolous and entirely without merit. After the Golden Globes social media moment, we negotiated a generous agreement with Ms. Cuthbert that she blatantly violated. We are confident that we will prevail in Court. Throughout our history, we have had a sterling reputation working with talent.” Cuthbert seeks monetary damages and injunctive relief.
Takeaway: The right of publicity is an intellectual property right that protects against the misappropriation of a person’s name, likeness and other indicia of personal identity for commercial benefit. Advertisers are advised to obtain signed agreements with any persons whose likenesses are to be featured in marketing campaigns to avoid potentially costly lawsuits.