Monday, December 26, 2022
Sid DeLong: Risks Associated with Name, Image & Likeness Deals
Tom Brady: From G.O.A.T. to Scapegoat:
A Cautionary Tale of Influencer and Endorser Liability
Sidney W. DeLong
If the next Tom (the Greatest Of All Time) Brady is in college today he is sure to be earning a lot more money than Tom was able to scrape together as a student athlete when he played for Michigan. As predicted in an earlier post, Name, Image, and Likeness Mercenaries: NIL Desperandum in College Athletics, the next Tom is already aboard the Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) bandwagon that has already showered millions of dollars in “endorsement” income on student-athletes. The NIL beneficiaries are Very Definitely Not being “Paid to Play” for the schools that woo them to step through the Transfer Portals into a world of big money endorsement contracts. Star athletes can earn tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, ostensibly as pitchmen for local car dealerships and plumbing companies. All of which is good practical training for the much more lucrative and slickly produced product endorsements for which they will be paid when they become professionals, endorsing insurance companies, sneakers and fast food.
And in a sense, NIL income for athletes is only fair compensation for the hard and dangerous work they must put in to earn their scholarships. Star athletes must keep up financially with their non-athletic but internet-famous classmates who pull down five and six-figure salaries as Influencers, persuading their followers to buy whatever music, fashions, and cosmetics that their advertisers are paying them to pitch. “Influencer: It’s not just a side-hustle, it’s a career.”
But the shock waves emanating from recent collapses in the world of crypto portend risks that a fledgling NIL athlete or Influencer might well bear in mind. It turns out that touting a product as a celebrity endorser or influencer can lead to significant personal financial liability for the endorser, especially if what is being touted is not a diet plan but what a judge may later call a “security.”
Endorser liability is a relatively new concept and the courts have not yet evolved clear rules. The common law offers few theories under which a buyer might sue a seller’s agent for personal liability resulting from misleading statements the agent made about a purchase of a commodity, whether in the form of facts or opinions. Lies by a non-seller might justify avoidance or a warranty claim against the seller, but the agent owes no common law duty to the buyer to make only truthful statements about the product.
By statute, however, two forms of endorser liability have emerged in the U.S. For the sale of goods, The Federal Trade Commission has issued regulations making it illegal for a product endorser to fail to disclose whether she is compensated for her endorsement or to publish a misleading consumer product review of the product. The FTC has even published “guidelines” for social media influencers. Because these rules are aimed at misleading endorsement rather than misstatements of fact, liability can be avoided if the celebrity announces, ‘I am just saying this because I have been paid to do so.” Of course, such candor would defeat the purpose of the endorsement. Actual disclosures are more subtle, but effective in avoiding liability. But the American public has always been fully aware that every celebrity endorser since Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon (left) has compensated and so the formalistic acknowledgement of compensation that is demanded by the FTC seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Or perhaps an example of straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.
A far more lethal risk arises if the product being endorsed is held to be a security as defined in federal and state law. Which leads us to the crypto disaster. Tom Brady, along with his wife Gisele Bundchen, Shaquille O’Neal, Naomi Osaka, Larry David, Steph Curry, and many other celebrity endorsers of crypto products have been sued for damages and fines by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and classes of private parties under theories of securities act violations, violations of FTC disclosure regulations, and common law fraud, all arising from their promotional activities on behalf of FTX, Crypto.com and other sellers of crypto assets.
In a widely-publicized enforcement action, Kim Kardashian (right) was fined $1. 2 million in penalties plus disgorgement of profits by the SEC for failing to disclose a $250,000 payment she received to publish a post on her Instagram account promoting EthereumMax’s crypto asset security EMAX tokens. The article suggests that Matt “Fortune Favors the Brave” Damon was not charged because he was promoting a website, Crypto.com, rather than a specific security offered by his principal. More importantly, because EthereumMax’s tokens declined in value by 98% following Kardashian’s promo, she has been sued by disappointed investors for their losses.
Even the question whether Bitcoins themselves are securities may be an open question about which legal advice would be necessary. Gary Gensler, Chairperson of the SEC, has said that he believes that most cryptocurrencies are securities, as defined under the Howey Test, leading many to anticipate regulation of the market. If a celebrity touts an unregistered security, that alone could subject them to potential fines and jail time as well as to civil claims by disappointed purchasers regardless of the celebrity’s disclosure of their interest.
In addition to liability for fraud or for promoting the sale of unregistered securities, endorsers may run afoul of the SEC’s statement of policy about “celebrity backed” initial coin offerings requiring disclosure of compensation paid for endorsements (concerning the policy relating to “initial coin offerings”). Under this theory, Brady and Bundchen may have additional disclosure obligations arising from an alleged equity stake they took in FTX in 2021, before the endorsements.
What conclusions should a lawyer representing Future Tom Brady or Future Gisele Bundchen draw from the GOAT’s latest problems? I would suggest at least the following.
First, you should have final review of any endorsement contract and should not depend on the endorsement agent’s version, whose financial interests are not coincident with his own. Tell the client that “Jerry Maguire is interested only in his cut of the promotional fees; he won’t be there for you when you are sent away for securities fraud.”
Second, you will require securities law expertise whenever there is any possibility that what the client is touting is a security. With novel crypto products, it may be months or years before the courts decide whether the thing being touting is a “security,” under some version of the Howey test. Emphasize to the client that the personal liability for violating the securities laws can be staggering: that is the reason that liability insurance for securities lawyers is so expensive. An endorsement fee cannot possibly compensate for this level of risk.
Third, insist that the entity paying for the endorsement agree to indemnify the client and hold them harmless from any liability they may incur to any person or organization resulting from their performance of the endorsement contract. The indemnity must also include compensation for attorneys’ fees and other professional fees incurred, tax-related losses, and any other financial liability resulting from the product endorsement. (An agreement to pay criminal fines might be unenforceable on grounds of public policy, but it cannot hurt to obtain it.) If you cannot obtain indemnity, you should probably advise the client to walk away from the deal. If they refuse, you should (sad to say) probably memorialize your advice to the client.
When Matt Damon (left) told America that “Fortune favors the Brave” he was really sending a double message. He was not only encouraging ordinary people to risk their life savings on Bitcoin in a bold bid to earn a fortune. He was also, by his own example, encouraging celebrities to risk losing everything they owned in a securities fraud class action just to earn a hundred-thousand-dollar fee. Both messages proved to be disastrous, but at least some of the celebrities may end up as the bigger losers.