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
Here is a link to an article addressing the FTC’s guidelines for celebrity endorsements in the online and social media environment. Social media in particular brings a host of unique issues. The article on this link could be a useful reference: https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=34a6631e-563d-4546-bcbd-0c8c15f4ad07&utm_source=lexology+daily+newsfeed&utm_medium=html+email+-+body+-+general+section&utm_campaign=lexology+subscriber+daily+feed&utm_content=lexology+daily+newsfeed+2019-05-13&utm_term=
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
The $30 million lawsuit filed by Muhammad Ali Enterprises against Fox, for a three minute promo ad that ran in advance of the 2017 Super Bowl. While Fox felt that the spot was protected, the problem with that theory is the spot had all of the hallmarks of an advertisement, and functioned as an advertisement over all else. Such uses are the kind the right of publicity is designed to address. And while a settlement is not a judicial interpretation, the fact that it settled would seem to confirm that Fox overstepped the bounds in this instance. Here’s a link to a prior entry when the suit was still pending: Muhammad Ali Ent. files $30M suit over Super Bowl ad
An appeal brought by Lindsay Lohan against Take-Two Entertainment and Rockstar Games in relation to the Lacey Jonas character in Grand Theft Auto V has inspired an amicus brief, filed last month, in support of the video game companies. I am not commenting on the merits of Lohan’s claim here. I also am not responding to the brief itself, but am just notating a few observations that relate to the New York discussion overall.
The Lohan case is pending in New York. The amicus brief references New York’s right of privacy statute (New York sections 50 & 51) and indicates that New York’s statute helped the court “dodge a bullet” through its narrow right of privacy provisions.
New York’s legislation, as it shapes New York’s position on the right of publicity and its narrow provisions concerning the right of privacy, is hardly a model for right or privacy or right of publicity legislation (not that anyone has called it a model). New York’s Sections 50 and 51 puts New York at odds with almost every state in the U.S. It allows no room for the critical policy reasons behind right of publicity recognition, as distinct from privacy rights. New York’s right of publicity deficiencies, stemming from the 115 year old legislation (though it has been amended a few times) are, in fact, the source of a lot of problems New York is experiencing.
Addressing New York’s 1903 statute, passed in the aftermath of Roberson v. Rochester Folding Box Co., 171 N.Y. 538 (1902), Professor J. Thomas McCarthy in The Rights of Privacy and Publicity, s.6:74 says:
“New York …is part of a tiny and dwindling minority of courts which still rejects any common law rights of privacy. The court refuses to change its 1902 Roberson decision, viewing the common law as a rigid and fixed institution…When the federal courts in New York invited the New York Court of Appeals to join the national trend and recognize some form of common law privacy rights, the invitation was ignored.”
It was New York that gave life to the common law right of publicity in the 1953 case of Haelan V. Topps, 202 F.2d 866, which in turn led to recognition in other states. McCarthy says “But the right of publicity faced a hostile reception in the state courts in the state of its creation. Honored abroad, it was viewed with suspicion in New York.” Clearly, it still is.
In an eye-brow raising abandonment of decades of precedent, the New York Court of Appeals in 1984 abandoned numerous rulings recognizing a common law right of publicity, holding that there is no common law right of publicity in New York and forcing analysis to pass through a statute that was only 36 months out of the 19th Century. Stephano v. News Group Publications, Inc., 64 N.Y.2d 174 (1984). McCarthy says about Stephano: “Erroneously treating the right of publicity as merely a tag-along form of the right of privacy, the court …rejected without serious discussion the concept of a New York common law right of publicity.” A similar ruling in 1993 deepened New York’s slide into the abyss in Howell v. New York Post Co., Inc., 81 N.Y.2d 1145. McCarthy says of the 1993 ruling: “Thus, the highest New York court has abided by its position that all privacy and publicity rights must fit in the 1903 statute. But this makes for a poor fit. The modern right of publicity simply does not fit comfortably in a century-old statute designed for another time and another kind problem.”
The Lohan amicus brief addresses the transformative use test and the predominant purpose test. In other settings, the criticism of these tests sometimes seems to almost include the tacit suggestion that judges are incapable of using discernment and applying the law to challenging facts. To my ears, that sounds like the essence of their calling. Sure, outlier cases exist, and certain fact patterns will present challenging scenarios in which application of one of these tests may seem a bit forced, but every legal test comes with such dynamics. The transformative use test has proven to be an adaptive, functional analysis tool in most instances.
Another recurring theme as it pertains to video game litigation as well as draft legislation is that the discussion of whether video games should receive some degree of exempted status is being presented as a fait accompli. It is as though the discussion point has morphed into an assumption that video games should be treated as categorically protected. A fair amount has been written on this site about video games and the transformative use test (Discussion Brown Keller EA rulings). In most instances, video games go to extraordinary lengths, using cutting edge technology, to ensure nothing about the personality is transformed. Instead, the objective is to represent that person as thoroughly and realistically as possible. Maybe there are instances in which a video game character should not trigger liability, but to move the entire industry into exempted status is more dangerous and unwarranted than dealing with specific cases as they come up. Perhaps there is a reason some of the litigation against video game companies has been successful in the court system?
New York has tried many times to amend its position on the right of publicity but, to date, nothing has changed. It is worth noting that even if the recent legislation under consideration was enacted, New York’s statute would still be among the weakest right of publicity statute in the country. Why isn’t this seen as a success for the opposition? New York may be the center of the universe in many respects, but it certainly is not when it comes to the right of publicity. And while those opposed to New York’s draft legislation foretell of a tidal wave of litigation and an assault on the First Amendment if passed–basically the first two entries in the anti-right of publicity playbook that has been attempted in every jurisdiction since I’ve been paying attention, though it is effective at scaring legislators–they are ignoring the data from many other jurisdictions that disproves such predictions.
I have no objection to debate, analysis and differences of opinion regarding the right of publicity. If the right of publicity is to grow and evolve, the doctrine will survive scrutiny and benefit from fair-minded, level-headed discussion. That said, a conference I recently attended was marked by positions clearly representing the minority viewpoint being presented as the presumptively correct views, as though it was the majority view and supported by case law, statutory authority and scholarship. Much of the conversation was presented in a manner that what New York was considering is unprecedented and radical, which is simply not true and certainly not fair-minded or level-headed.
I recall an argument from a few years ago in which a lobbying organization on behalf of the First Amendment claimed that if that state passed the proposed legislation, libraries would not be able to post a notice that, for example, J.K. Rowling’s new book would be available on a certain date without facing potential litigation from the author. Give me a break.
I’m not sure where the Lohan claim will end up. She probably isn’t the most sympathetic claimant, and I haven’t analyzed the use of the Lacey Jonas character in the game. If she is unequivocally identifiable from the use, especially if the use in context is clearly based on the game player’s awareness of Lohan, then I’d start the conversation assuming she would have the basis of a claim.
Here is a Lexology link with more details on the Lohan amicus brief: amicus brief Lohan
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:
That Minnesota should consider enacting publicity rights legislation is something I stated here shortly after Prince’s untimely passing: http://rightofpublicity.com/prince-knew-the-value-of-his-intellectual-property-42216 Minnesota has responded with draft right of publicity legislation, SF 3609, posted on May 11, 2016: https://www.revisor.mn.gov/bills/text.php?number=SF3609&version=0&session=ls89&session_year=2016&session_number=0
Predictably, critics of the legislation are taking issue with the bill on First Amendment grounds: http://www.law360.com/ip/articles/794846?nl_pk=bb8aeb3e-4ab9-4ba4-a0af-b895a107fd8a&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=ip
While the legislation likely would benefit from expanding the list of fair use exemptions, such as for books, overall the legislation is in good shape and appears well-balanced in its reach and application.
As we have seen from the Michael Jackson estate and questions concerning the valuation of his right of publicity, I expect Prince’s estate will go through a similar review by the IRS. It should be noted that Minnesota’s potential adoption of the “Prince law” is not dispositive on whether or not Prince’s estate possess a right of publicity. It should be assumed that it already does. How it should be treated for taxation purposes is another question altogether.
Prince knew the value of his intellectual property, and fought battles other artists didn’t or couldn’t. And won, in the case of control over his publishing and catalog. I hope that this awareness extends to Prince’s Right of Publicity. Hopefully, he had advisers in his life who could raise his awareness on this point. He could have been quite the advocate for publicity rights recognition. Maybe it’s time for the Minnesota legislature to put a statute in place in his honor.
Godspeed, Prince. #RIPPrince