Don't Piss Off Julia Child: Lessons Learned From Airbnb's Promotion

Business.com / Legal / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Big name celebrities and their lawyers will pounce on any opportunity to recover damages for the use of unauthorized material. Don't do it.

Business owners need to be wary of who they name or reference in their commercial endeavors.

It can be very tempting to name-drop a celebrity in order to garner intrigue and excitement about a promotion, but one must be granted authorization beforehand to avoid legal trouble.

Big name celebrities and their lawyers will pounce on any opportunity they can get to recover damages for the use of unauthorized material.

And using a celebrity’s name and likeness without his or her express consent makes your business a sitting duck.

In May 2016, Airbnb Inc. illustrated how this sort of ill-advised practice can come back to haunt a business. The company released and advertised a promotion of a French vacation home they claimed was previously owned by culinary icon Julia Child. Unfortunately for Airbnb, they were not given any authorization to use the renowned chef’s name, and as a result, The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts has sued Airbnb for using Child’s name without permission.

The non-profit foundation filed a complaint in June 2016 to the California Superior Court, protesting Airbnb’s Memorial Day contest that gave away a free night at a cottage in the French countryside called La Pitchoune, which translates to “The Little One.”

The rent for this property is otherwise $610 a night. Entrants to the contest were required to answer the following question using between 50 to 500 characters: “How would you make the most of your time living like a chef in Provence, France?” In theory, the one who best responded to this question would be the lucky winner of this enviable prize.

In April, Airbnb contacted the foundation, asking for consent to use her name and likeness for the promotion. The lawsuit says that Airbnb initiated the promotion notwithstanding the foundation’s denial of this request.

Despite her role as a culinary idol throughout the twentieth century, Child adhered to her policy of refusing to endorse cooking products or allowing her name to be used for promotions and advertising prior to her death in 2004, according to Todd Schulkin, the foundation’s executive director.

The suit identifies Airbnb’s erroneous claims that the French property was a “former home” of Child and that the items in her kitchen were “exactly as she left them.” The foundation’s complaint said that Child and her husband never actually owned the property; they merely rented the home on occasion. It also noted that during her last visit in 1992, Child removed all of her cooking equipment, books, and pictures from the home.

Moreover, the lawsuit alleges that San Francisco-based Airbnb misappropriated Child’s right of publicity, a violation of California state law. According to California Civil Code, the liable party, if guilty, is responsible for the greater of $750 or the actual damages suffered as a result of the unauthorized use of name and likeness. The foundation is seeking an undisclosed amount of compensatory and punitive damages, along with an injunction to cease the use of Child’s name.

This is just one of many recent cases that aim to curtail the unwarranted use of celebrities’ names and likenesses for commercial reasons. The case is Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts v. Airbnb Inc. and will be heard by the California Superior Court in Santa Barbara County.

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