Deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega is suing Activision for the unauthorized use of his name and likeness in Call of Duty: Black Ops II.
Noriega, who is featured prominently in two of Black Ops II‘s missions, filed the lawsuit yesterday with the Los Angeles County Superior Court, according to a report from Courthouse News. In his suit, Noriega writes that the use of his image was designed “to increase the popularity and revenue” generated by the game, and took umbrage with the game’s decision to make the ex–South American strongman a villain.
“Defendants’ use of plaintiff’s image and likeness caused damage to plaintiff,” part of the suit reads. “Plaintiff was portrayed as an antagonist and portrayed as the culprit of numerous fictional heinous crimes, creating the false impression that defendants are authorised to use plaintiff’s image and likeness. This caused plaintiffs to receive profits they would not have otherwise received.”
While Black Ops II does indeed show Noriega committing fictional crimes, it’s worth noting that they’re arguably not out of line with crimes he’s actually been convicted of, including involvement in drug trafficking and the murders of political opponents. He’s not currently serving a 20 year sentence in Panamanian prison just because.
Cases like this usually come down to a judgment of whether the artistic expression of the work outweighs the commercial exploitation or risk of public confusion. In other words, the court will likely base their ruling on whether Noriega’s inclusion was primarily for storytelling reasons or to trick people into thinking that he’d somehow endorsed the game in an effort to drum up sales.
It might seem cut-and-dry in this particular instance—I don’t think the Noriega fan club is exactly bustling these days—but similar cases have been surprisingly inconclusive as of late. In May of last year, for instance, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that EA’s NCAA Football games infringed on the publicity rights of college athletes because the work didn’t do anything to transform its portrayal of them into a unique expression. Less than two months later, however, the Ninth Circuit held that EA’s Madden games were entitled to use the likeness of retired NFL athlete Jim Brown because the broader context of the entire game offered artistic value beyond simply recreating images of football players playing football. When it comes to videogames, no one can seem to agree on a single test or principle.
Either way, at least we can all sleep easy tonight knowing that Manuel Noriega and Lindsay Lohan now have something in common.