Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man ever to walk on the moon, is suing the trading card giant Topps for using a photo of him taken on his historic moonwalk as part of a recent series of collectable cards, according to news reports.
After being unable to negotiate a licensing fee for the image, the 80-year old Aldrin filed a lawsuit against Topps in a Los Angeles federal court on Monday (Dec. 27), "contending that the trading card company had unjustly profited from his historic achievement by including a photograph of the Apollo 11 mission in a series of trading cards," according to a Los Angeles Times report.
The NASA image in question appears in Topps' "American Heroes" series of collector cards, which was released in 2009.
Michael Kahn, the attorney representing Topps, claims the company's right to include Aldrin's image in the historic event falls under the First Amendment.
"Topps included Dr. Aldrin within the 'American Heroes' edition because it believes he is an American hero and is thus proud to be able to share such information with its audience," Kahn wrote in a letter dated April 15 to Aldrin's law firm.
Aldrin became the second man to step foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, when he and Apollo 11 mission commander Neil Armstrong landed their craft, called Eagle, on lunar surface to make the first manned moon landing. Their third Apollo 11 crewmate, Michael Collins remained in orbit aboard the mission's command module Columbia.
Since then, he has carefully protected his image and intellectual property rights. In this case, Aldrin argues that the use of his image is adding value to a commercial product.
Aldrin's lawyers have issued a warning to Topps that they have successfully helped the astronaut obtain more than $760,000 in legal settlements from other companies that have used his image on books, software packaging and trading cards, the L.A. Times reported.
But Aldrin's team may have some hurdles ahead.
"NASA's position is that while the photographs taken on the moon, in space, and elsewhere during the astronauts' careers with the space agency are public domain meaning no copyright is asserted if the images are used for commercial purposes, permission should first be sought from the person(s) depicted," explained Robert Pearlman, editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community for space history and artifact enthusiasts, and a SPACE.com contributor.
Aldrin is not the only astronaut to fight back against images used without permission.
"Neil Armstrong brought legal proceedings against Hallmark for their ornament's use of his name and voice. That case was settled out of court for an unspecified amount," Pearlman told SPACE.com. "The late Pete Conrad and Jim Irwin (and their respective families) have defended their right to license their likeness for action figures and other commercial products."
More recently, astronaut Bruce McCandless sued pop singer Dido for using a photo of him during a spacewalk on the cover of an album. The case is still pending in court.
And while a decision in Aldrin's case remains to be seen, the case represents the difficult line between public and private property and the related consequences.
"I don't know what direction Aldrin's case against Topps will ultimately take," Pearlman said. "While I appreciate Aldrin's rights as afforded by the law to protect his image, I cannot help but also think that this could dissuade Topps and other trading card companies from producing astronaut and space-themed products, which would be unfortunate. Dating back to the 1960s, space trading cards have been a great way to engage kids in learning about space history."
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