Departing from the usual Halloween release date, Forbes issued its annual top-earning deceased celebrities list on Friday, November 13th in 2020. A few takeaways, in no particular order:
1. Unsurprisingly, given the worldwide pandemic, almost all the reported numbers are down. Some may have more immunity than others, and those that went up, like Dr. Seuss were bolstered by television, movie and media deals. Some of that may be one-time bursts.
2. Elvis Presley was closing in on a 50% decline. Graceland, as a tourist destination, no doubt accounts for much of that given closures in 2020.
3. Prince is down yet again another year further from his death, as has been the trend. The summary on Prince mentions only music sales.
4. Those with the misfortune of making 2019’s list due to early departure, XXXTentacion and Nipsey Hussle, are gone.
5. Those with the misfortune of making 2020’s list due to early departure include Kobe Bryant and Juice WRLD. It will be interesting to see if Kobe Bryant is a one-time, one-year entrant or will make next year’s list as well.
6. Not-much-of-a-prediction: Eddie Van Halen will be on next 2021’s list. Though he passed away over a month prior to the release of the 2020 list, that is neither enough time to account increased sales, nor enough time to process his passing into a list that was no doubt already well underway in October.
7. The article includes a statement about its methodology, which includes sources I use when appropriate in valuations.
Last, a word about the often used term “delebrity” in relation to deceased celebrities. I get it, though it’s never really hit me as particularly clever or useful as a term. More importantly, no one I know who actually works with the heirs, family, and estates of notable deceased icons uses this term. It’s hard to take someone seriously who uses this term in their scholarship, publications, or writings. But keep using it, those who do, because it provides a revealing tell.
Here is a link to Forbes’ 2020 list: https://www.forbes.com/sites/maddieberg/2020/11/13/the-highest-paid-dead-celebrities-of-2020/?sh=37a974e03b4b&utm_source=Licensing+International+Database&utm_campaign=b3b89e5adb-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_12_18_01_57_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_ec0e484a60-b3b89e5adb-397655773&mc_cid=b3b89e5adb&mc_eid=a31363c945
Yes, there is a Right of Publicity interest pertaining to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died a week ago at the age of 87. As always, application and analysis of her Right of Publicity would depend on context and specifics in any particular situation. But sticking to overview observations, since she was a lawyer, it may be a safe assumption that Justice Ginsburg had a testamentary plan in place. Since she was attuned to intellectual property matters, it is possible there were specific Right of Publicity provisions in her testamentary plan. Since she is commonly referred to as RBG, it is safe to assume RGB could unequivocally identify Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And given the preceding points, it is safe to assume potential commercial uses or trademark activity could intersect with some of these points. This may all be academic, of course. We’ll see.
I’ve seen some commentary on Mel Gibson’s issuance of a letter to the person behind a Chilean honey branded “Miel Gibson.” Here’s a link to more coverage of the story: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-08-15/mel-gibson-threatens-to-sue-chilean-honey-maker-over-image-use/12562438
To date, the developments consist of a letter being issued. No lawsuit has been filed. The letter seems to indicate a willingness for the Chilean business person to continue to some extent, but requests his image be removed. Reportedly, after the recipient shared the letter online, her social media grew “exponentially.”
There’s no question that the product name and packaging ties to Mel Gibson. For those who don’t like the contents of or even issuance of the letter, I would ask “what would you advise be done?”
New York’s legislature may be closing in on passing a Right of Publicity statute with New York State Assembly Bill A5605C. If so, it would be a significant development in the Right of Publicity realm as New York has been conspicuously behind other states for a very long time. As of July 20, 2020, the bill was “amended on third reading” (here’s a link to the timeline and status of the bill which also has link to the PDF of the bill itself): https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2019/A5605
Overall, my take is that this bill would be a step in the right direction, even as it would still amount to New York having one of more narrow or limited Right of Publicity statutes in the United States. For example, a forty year post-mortem provision is quite anemic, and creating a registry system sounds good on paper but in my experience is not particularly helpful yet introduces various problems. Video games are not on the list of exempted works, as they should not be, and also to its credit, the bill has meaningful provisions in relation to Deepfakes and the problems such technology present in the modern world.
The progress of this bill seems already to have traveled further than past efforts. Hopefully, tired refrains like “this bill exists only to enrich a few wealthy estates” are worn-out by now and find no traction. Does copyright and trademark exist only to enrich a few wealthy creators or companies? Observations of past legislative efforts in New York are addressed in the following link I made on the topic: https://rightofpublicity.com/observations-about-new-yorks-assembly-bill-a-8155b
Sorry to disappoint anyone expecting this blog entry’s title to be answered here, but for a number of reasons, it isn’t. The question can certainly be raised though. Former Steelers, Raiders and Patriots wide received Antonio Brown has released a song or track entitled “Andrew Luck,” which opens with audio from Andrew Luck’s press conference announcing his retirement, and including a repeated refrain with the lyrics:
I got the game and I’m not on stuck
I’m out the way like Andrew Luck
Everybody callin’ my phone, shut up
A while back, Outkast released a song called Rosa Parks. Litigation ensued and Parks won. In short, the song wasn’t about Rosa Parks and the title was deemed a violation of Rosa Parks’ rights. Paraphrasing, a great line from that decision was that “crying artist does not confer carte blanche” to use a person’s name in a way that does not relate to the song, but which certainly serves to bring attention to the track.
There are various other examples. Logic released a song called “Keanu Reeves” which, interestingly and perhaps significantly, does not actually even reference Reeves. Instead, the connection, such as it is, refers to “the one” like Keanu Reeves, which of course is a reference to Reeves’ character Neo in the Matrix film franchise.
The legal test that likely applies best to these facts is the Rogers test, from litigation brought by Ginger Rogers in response a film named “Fred and Ginger.” Rogers lost the claim on the basis that the title was relevant to the film’s title and not simply a ploy to attract attention from Rogers’ name. Conversely, the same test was applied to Outkast’s release of a track called “Rosa Parks.” The lyrics were not about Rosa Parks, and it was determined to be a violation of Parks’ rights and an effort simply to attract attention to the song.
So I’ll leave it to you to decide if Brown’s song “Andrew Luck” is fair, appropriate or permissible, or if it fails the Rodgers test as Outkast’s song did a while back. I expect we’ll never really have this question answered, but it is an interesting reference point to consider in any event.
Here’s a link to the video and a recent interview with Antonio Brown: Antonio Brown releases track named Andrew Luck
Student-athlete legislation & the NCAA’s Board of Governors adopting name, image and likeness policies
Yesterday, the NCAA’s Board of Governors voted unanimously in favor of allowing student athletes to earn money from their name, image, and likeness. NCAA Board of Governors Name Image Likeness
The NCAA’s announcement spoke of modernizing, and the Board issued guidelines and created a Working Group to respond to legislative developments concerning the issue. In other words, there is much yet to come. After opposing California’s bill, perhaps the NCAA felt forced to change its stance, and to be fair, it is a complicated issue.
A few observations, in no particular order:
1. As usual, the legal term for the interests being dealt with–the right of publicity–is rarely if ever used in reporting on the issues. It would help if its proper name was used, but since trademark and copyright issues are often referred to as “patents,” perhaps it is par for the course.
2. These developments really only put NCAA athletes on the same footing as other college students. A music major can perform and earn money. An art major can sell works and earn money. Having said that, unlike those examples, student athletes perform their craft entirely in the NCAA environment. They are on the school’s field, in the school’s stadium, wearing the school’s uniform bearing its valuable trademark, with a team, coaching staff, and opponent, all of which cost money not paid by the student athlete. The music or art major generally covers costs and handles logistics in performing or creating a work that leads to income. Still, the point has merit.
3. A subsidized education is valuable, and the majority of NCAA athletes will need an education for life after competitive sports. The NCAA system also provides a forum in which athletes develop and get recognized, and therefore reach the professional level. The amateur environment can hardly be said to have failed every student athlete up to this point.
4. Those affected by these developments constitute a very small percentage of NCAA athletes. Few NCAA athletes move on to professional sports. Of those who do, an even smaller percentage last more than a few years at the professional level. An even small number will earn significant money from their name, image, and likeness (correction: their right of publicity) outside of contractual compensation from the professional sports team.
5. I have seen at least some state that these developments put athletes in danger or that the right of publicity must be “fixed.” Suggesting that these developments will put student athletes in danger of entering into agreements that diminish their rights later on is a commentary on the nature of contracts. Pending legislation seems to be seen as an opportunity to attack established right of publicity architecture such as transferability, postmortem right of publicity, and the duration of recognition of the right of publicity. None of these issues are, or should be, part of the recent student-athlete legislation.
6. To the extent that these developments create the possibility of students being used commercially in relation to a team, such scenarios could implicate various intellectual property rights. Commercial use of footage of an athlete performing in an NCAA competition, or the school’s name and logo, may implicate rights that exist in parallel to the right of publicity. This observation explains why weight loss ads with Dan Marino or watch ads with Eli Manning depicted them with a generic football, but no Dolphins or Giants trademarks.
Time will tell.
Not that it would happen, but I can imagine providing the scenario in the following link as a law school exam: Larry Bird mural
It does not appear headed towards legal action, but hypothetically, how could this go? On the copyright front, is it a fair use? A derivative work? Does adding tattoos that Bird obviously does not have change the copyright analysis?
On the Right of Publicity front, or perhaps on the privacy front, what issues exist? Is it a commercial use? Is it protected by statute? Are there issues involved here that sway the analysis in one direction or the other?
Super Bowl LIII will commence later today, and with it, some of the most anticipated advertising of the year as well. Most don’t think of it this way, but those advertisements often feature the Right of Publicity by way of the people depicted in the ads. My licensing company has an advertisement that will run during this Super Bowl as well–a campaign that has been running for a while featuring Major Taylor. Enjoy the game, and enjoy the advertisements!
Article in the New York Times examining the issues presented by depicting athletes in video games, and the possibility that the tattoo artist retains an interest in their work (original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression). Thus, a human, or skin, is now a tangible medium of expression.
Seems like a simple agreement at the point of origin would fix most of these issues going forward.
Link to the New York Times article: NYT article on who owns what athlete tattoos and video games
Actress Tara Reid apparently has filed a lawsuit seeking $100 million relating to merchandising of the Sharknado film franchise. Reportedly at issue are product categories such as branded beer and slot machines with her likeness on them, which according to her contract require her separate approval. From a distance, this looks like a contract dispute more than a Right of Publicity case, though certainly the Right of Publicity is implicated by the issues at hand. If her likeness is on the product, one hopes that the transformative test would not be twisted and stretched to attempt an argument that the image on the product is meant to be the character from the film, not the actress herself, that her likeness is transformed. But it wouldn’t be the first time a carefully tailored test gets twisted down the line.
Here is Forbes coverage of the lawsuit: https://www.forbes.com/sites/legalentertainment/2018/12/07/tara-reid-sues-sharknado-producers-for-100m/#26b5b9672c46
Beyonce suit against Feyonce knockoffs illustrates need for Right of Publicity distinct from trademark
A Judge recently denied Beyoncé’s request for injunctive relief against a Texas company selling a range of products using “Feyonce.”
Apparently, the Feyonce pun is based on the proximity to the word fiancé. The Judge’s ruling, in summary, is that there was not a sufficient showing of potential confusion among customers that Feyonce was infringing Beyoncé’s trademark rights.
Thus, the need for Right of Publicity as a distinct form of intellectual property, that trademark does not adequately address, is illustrated yet again.
Here’s a link to more information on the ruling and the case: Beyonce Feyonce Lawsuit
One has to marvel at the arguments being attempted in opposition to New York’s Assembly Bill A.8155B. Here is a link to the bill: New York Assembly Bill A.8155B
In coverage of the bill (in the Hollywood Reporter coverage, link below), the MPAA says one of the fatal problems with the bill is that it does not have limitations for First Amendment purposes. Let’s shine the white-hot light of truth on such misinformation with a quick look at S.51 of the bill:
§ 51. Action for injunction and for damages. ... 50 2. Right of publicity exceptions. For purposes of the right of public- 51 ity, consent for use of another individual's persona shall not be 52 required, except as otherwise provided in subdivisions three and four of 53 this section, when used in connection with the following: 54 (a) news, public affairs or sports broadcast, including the promotion 55 of and advertising for a public affairs or sports broadcast, an account 56 of public interest or a political campaign;
A. 8155--B 5 1 (b) in: 2 (i) a play, book, magazine, newspaper, musical composition, visual 3 work, work of art, audiovisual work, radio or television program if it 4 is fictional or nonfictional entertainment, or a dramatic, literary or 5 musical work; 6 (ii) a work of political, public interest or newsworthy value includ- 7 ing a comment, criticism, parody, satire or a transformative creation of 8 a work of authorship; or 9 (iii) an advertisement or commercial announcement for any of the works 10 described in paragraph (a) of this subdivision or this paragraph; or 11 (c) fundraising purposes by not-for-profit radio and television 12 stations licensed by the federal communications commission of the United 13 States, or by not-for-profit advocacy organizations if the use is for 14 commentary or criticism; 15 (d) use of the right of publicity of a deceased individual where the 16 licensee or successor in interest has failed to register and post a 17 claim of right under section fifty-h of this article, with the exception 18 of the safe harbor period listed in subdivision seven of section fifty-h 19 of this article, until such time as a claim of right has been registered 20 and posted as required under such section.
Accuracy appears to be the first casualty in the fight against Right of Publicity recognition. Claiming the First Amendment will be jeopardized and creative works stifled if the legislation is passed is such a popular refrain designed to make every legislator afraid to go against something as fundamental as the First Amendment, that it will be repeated even when the statute specifically contains exactly what it is alleged to lack.
Another observation is the attempt to characterize New York’s bill as something so revolutionary, something so dangerous, that the bill simply must be shelved. New York’s legislature has been in almost a permanent state of considering this legislation. Many other states have Right of Publicity recognition firmly in place, and so far, I’m happy to report the First Amendment, creative works, commerce, and freedom in general have not withered in those jurisdictions. We might have heard about it if these popular, dire predictions actually ever occurred.
Another quick observation relates to the provisions in the bill addressing deep fake uses and digital recreation of a person. On this point, I might just sit back and listen as the lobbyists attempt to argue against a baseline provision addressing the extreme abuses possible by way of deep fake uses and digital recreation.
Lastly, in the Hollywood Reporter’s coverage, it is suggested that A.8155B isn’t really needed because the Lanham Act, false endorsement and privacy rights already provide adequate recourse. They don’t. That statement would only hold true for the small number of people so famous that they can actually support a trademark claim. Suggesting that the Lanham Act and privacy rights are a sufficient substitute for the Right of Publicity is simply inaccurate, and this point ought to be beyond debate. The article says it is not attempting to take offer competing interpretations and that both sides are probably guilty of overreaching, but then comments only on supporters of the bill, with no commentary or insight on how the studios and opponents to the bill may also be overreaching. Here is the link: Hollywood Reporter coverage on New York’s Assembly Bill A.8155B
In the ugliness of lobbying, it is apparent that being right, or even knowing what the legislation actually says, is not really an important detail.
At a recent Napa Valley ABA panel, the argument reportedly was made that a wave of lawsuits filed against media companies is making it harder for producers to make documentaries, docudramas and sports features. I’m reminded of the coverage after Comedy III or the Tiger Woods case against Jireh, when claims were made that “artists can’t create art anymore.” Gotta love hyperbole.
Last time I checked, a few lawsuits doesn’t constitute a wave. And it sure doesn’t seem like the documentary, docudrama and sports feature categories are struggling. I’d wager that more such words are being created now than ever before.
The pending suit by Mohammad Ali’s rights owners against Fox for a Super Bowl spot, and a separate claim by Olivia de Havilland are probably the main examples of this “trend” or “wave.” Why don’t we speak of the trend or wave of media giants and advertisers trying to get for free rights that should be licensed? Sure, documentaries, docudramas, and whatever “sports features” are may present specific cases, but it isn’t too radical of an idea to suggest that each situation may present unique facts or characteristics that must be considered. Bad lawsuits will be filed, in all areas of the law. Abuses will happen by billion-dollar corporations or industries, of all manner of intellectual property rights. It happens, and we have laws and a system for addressing them.
Let’s try not to get carried away. My experience is those making the most dire predictions of a dystopian world where the right of publicity has consume the First Amendment rights are usually those aligned with the deep pockets that benefit most from such misinformation, or from those with precious little experience working with and representing rights owners.
Italian Steve Jobs fashion company makes obvious the necessity for meaningful Right of Publicity provisions
For those who argue against the need for meaningful Right of Publicity legislation, like many I have observed in the latest New York legislative effort, I offer the following situation as a compelling example that not only demonstrates the necessity of Right of Publicity recognition, but also the inadequacy of trademark law as a sufficient substitute.
An Italian company led by two brothers started a fashion company called Steve Jobs. There is no mistaken identity or alternate Steve Jobs intended by the fashion company; they openly confirm that their company is named after the late Apple-innovator Steve Jobs. Want proof? Their logo is the letter “J” with a bite taken out of it, just like Apple’s iconic trademark.
While many will already see the obvious, note that an EU trademark proceeding determined that the fashion company’s logo is (somehow) not a J with a bite out of it because (apparently) a J cannot be bitten as an apple can.
Perhaps under the guise of feigning nobility or respectfulness, the company states that they won’t make shoddy products because they “respect the name of Steve Jobs.” Of course, that respect doesn’t preclude them from including Steve Jobs’ quotes in their promotional efforts.
This, loyal readers, scholars or members of the media, is why we need a Right of Publicity. This situation exposes the inadequacy of arguing that trademark law provides sufficient protection for publicity-rights interests. It also demonstrates the compelling necessity for meaningful Right of Publicity legislation as a distinct member within the intellectual property family.
Here is a link to an article with more details on the matter:
Muhammad Ali’s representatives have filed a $30 million lawsuit on behalf of Muhammad Ali Enterprises (MAE) against Fox Broadcasting Company. The suit centers around a three minute promotional ad for Super Bowl LI which ran before the Super Bowl in 2017. The spot includes various other personalities, past and present, in addition to Ali who is the focal point.
Here is a link to the complaint: