Last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit threw former pro-wrestler, Steve "Wild Thing" Ray, out of the ring. That is, the Court threw Ray's lawsuit out of court, holding Ray's state-law claims were preempted by federal law.
Ray wrestled professionally for the UWF in the early '90s. At some point, ESPN obtained films of some of Ray's wrestling matches and was rebroadcasting them in Europe and North America -- without Ray's consent. Ray sued in Missouri state court, bringing state-law claims for (1) invasion of privacy & misappropriation of name, (2) infringement of the right of publicity, and (3) interference with prospective economic advantage. ESPN removed the case to federal court and then moved to dismiss, arguing Ray's state-law claims were preempted by the federal Copyright Act.
The district court agreed and dismissed the case. Ray appealed. And the Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal.
In simple terms, under the "federal preemption doctrine," a plaintiff cannot bring a claim under state law if essentially the same claim can be brought under federal law. The basic rationale underlying the doctrine is that defendants should not have to defend against the state-law version of a claim -- and thus have to possibly defend against 50 different state-law versions of that claim -- if there is a single federal-law version of the same claim. If there's a federal-law version of the claim, it preempts all the possible state-law versions of the same claim.
According to the Eighth Circuit, the federal Copyright Act preempts a state-law claim if (1) the claim is based on a work that falls within the subject matter of copyright, as defined under the Act, and (2) the right being asserted under state law is equivalent to the rights that are protected by the Act.
In Ray's case, the Court noted that his claims were based on the films of his wrestling matches -- and films (like books and music) are works that clearly fall within the subject matter of the Copyright Act. The Court then noted that Ray was not complaining that ESPN was using his image to, for example, promote a product without his permission; instead, he was complaining merely that the films were being rebroadcast without his permission. And because the right to rebroadcast (or to reproduce) is equivalent to a right protected by the Copyright Act, Ray's state-law claims were essentially the same as claims that might be brought under the Copyright Act, and were therefore preempted by the federal statute.
In short, Ray can't do anything about ESPN's rebroadcasting of his wrestling matches, unless he can show that the rebroadcasting violates federal copyright law -- or unless he can show that ESPN was doing more than merely rebroadcasting the films, such as using Ray's image to promote a product without his permission.
If you have questions about whether state-law claims may or may not be preempted by federal law, contact an attorney. And for information about recent trends in the Supreme Court regarding the federal preemption doctrine, see this article.