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In gaming, a famous face can cost you

Tony Wagner Jul 17, 2014

(Warning: some of the clips below contain strong violence and language.)

Panama’s former military dictator Manuel Noriega filed suit against the makers of “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” Tuesday.

Noriega says the blockbuster game uses his likeness without permission and then portrays him as “a kidnapper, murderer and enemy of the state.” In the game, Noriega at first helps, but then eventually betrays the player. In real life, Noriega was an American ally before he was ousted by the U.S. invasion of Panama and landed in prison.

This isn’t the first time the Call of Duty series has given a fictionalized take on historical figures. An earlier title let players battle zombies as Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro and Robert McNamara.

Noriega is seeking damages and lost profits, but does he have a case? Game developers have been sued for using the likenesses of public figures before, here’s a look back:

Lindsay Lohan and Grand Theft Auto

Another notable person who has seen better days sued a video game company this month. Lindsay Lohan is claiming a minor character in Rockstar Games’ “Grand Theft Auto V” is based on her. The character, Lacey Jonas, is a young, blonde starlet whom the player must help escape from paparazzi.

 The suit claims Rockstar used Lohan’s likeness, even in regards to the clothes Jonas wears. The Grand Theft Auto series is known for its biting satire of real-life people, brands and locations (the entire game takes place in a fictionalized version of Los Angeles), and Jonas is certainly spoofing a certain kind of actress.

But it’s not clear why Lohan would assume a character this vapid and self-absorbed was a represention of her. Forbes consulted an expert, who was split on the suit’s chances.

Athletes and EA Sports

In a landmark settlement, EA Sports and the Collegiate Licensing Company officially agreed in May to pay $40 million dollars to a consortium of former college athletes, leaving the NCAA alone in a class action lawsuit over their likenesses dating back to 2009.

EA’s annual NCAA football and basketball video games are hugely profitable for the publisher and the NCAA, while individual players are strictly forbidden from making money from their student athletic pursuits. The in-game athletes aren’t named, but the plaintiffs argued — and settlement documents showed — that EA modeled the player avatars after real athletes in virtually every way, including age, number, hometown, position, abilities, appearance and so on. The New York Times posted a detailed comparison when the suit was filed.

Everyone and Guitar Hero
“Guitar Hero,” with its miniature instrument controller and inflated price tag, was a surprisingly durable fad through the late 2000s. It spawned sequels, spin-offs and a rival series, “Rock Band” (which added a tiny plastic drum kit).

Both series were in an arms race for the rights to legendary bands’ catalogs and likenesses. Guitar Hero got Van Halen, Aerosmith, Metallica and Jimi Hendrix. Rock Band nabbed Green Day, AC/DC and — in a major coup — the Beatles.

But not every artist was happy with the way they ended up on screen. Courtney Love granted the rights to the late Kurt Cobain’s likeness, but as it turned out players could have the digital Kurt sing more than just Nirvana songs. The result is pretty uncomfortable to watch.

The surviving members of Nirvana expressed disappointment and a furious Love vowed to sue Guitar Hero publisher Activision. No Doubt and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine had a similar gripe over the way their likenesses were used in series spin-off “Band Hero,” and sued Activision for damages.

Axl Rose joined legal dogpile too, over “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.” Rose licensed Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” but objected to the very prominent inclusion of his former bandmate/worst enemy Slash. Claiming breach of contract, Rose sued for $20 million

Guitar Hero was cash cow, pulling in billions for Activision, but it was outlived by these lawsuits. No Doubt settled for an undisclosed amount in 2012 and Rose’s case was dismissed last year.

Gate Five and Beyonce

This case flipped the script, with a video game developer suing a celebrity to try and use her likeness. Gate Five sued Beyoncé for $100 million, claiming she backed out of a deal to create a dance game called “Starpower: Beyoncé” when her demands for compensation weren’t met, which they said cost 70 jobs and massive potential profits.

Beyoncé’s people requested the case to be dismissed, but they were denied twice. Gate Five then alleged Bey was courting a better deal from a different developer, and requested more documents. The two parties eventually settled out of court.

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