What do Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Princess Diana all have in common?
If you guessed that all of them are dead celebrities, you are only half right.
More importantly, all of them were subjects of messy postmortem lawsuits against sellers of celebrity-branded goods.
Because of great variations in the laws, as well as “favorite son/daughter” influence on local courts, using the name or image of a dead celebrity to sell products without a license is risky business.
The more direct threat is the law of rights of publicity. Generally speaking, rights of publicity laws prohibit the commercial use of the name (and usually image and signature) of another person without his permission. But that is about all one can say with certainty — the laws are state-based, not federal, and beyond the basics, there are great variations in the laws of the states that recognize rights of publicity. In fact, it is not even certain how many states do recognize rights of publicity, with estimates ranging from the mid-20’s to close to 50.
One of the biggest variables among state laws is whether the right of publicity survives the celebrity’s death, and if so, for how long. States that characterize the right of publicity as a personal right naturally conclude that it is extinguished on the person’s death. New York is one such state. States that characterize the right of publicity as a property right, like New Jersey, naturally conclude that it survives the person’s death, and is descendible to her survivors.
That seems simple enough. So where is the problem?
1) Which state law decides the survivability of a dead celebrity’s right of publicity, a personal right state or a property right state? The estate of Marilyn Monroe has claimed for years that property right based rights of publicity laws in both California and Indiana gave them the right to charge royalties to would be users of Marilyn’s name or image, but they were dealt a severe surprise in 2007 when judges in both Los Angeles and New York ruled that since Marilyn was a New York domiciliary at the time of her death in California in 1962, then New York’s personal right based law controlled, and her right of publicity did not survive her death. Similarly, a Washington court ruled that the heirs of Jimi Hendrix did not inherit his rights of publicity, because Jimi was a New York domiciliary at the time of his death in England in 1970. A broad rule of thumb is that survivability is decided by the state of the celebrity’s domicile (generally the state of legal residence) at the time of the celebrity’s death. But there are many exceptions to this rule, making it risky for a celebrity-oriented business to try to guess without legal assistance. Big band singer Louis Prima died in 1978 after two years in a nursing home in Louisiana, which is a personal rights state, but nevertheless, a New Jersey federal court held that the issue of the survivability of his right of publicity was controlled by the law of New Jersey, where Prima had never lived, and allowed his widow to sue the Olive Garden restaurant chain and its advertisers for use of a Prima sound-alike singer in a television commercial.
2) Even in a property right state, it is not always clear how long after death the right survives. In a case decided four years after Elvis Presley’s 1977 death, a New Jersey court ruled that the state’s case law supported a property right based right of publicity, and ruled that a local Elvis impersonator had misappropriated the King’s right of publicity. However, the court admitted that it had no idea how long the right survived Elvis, and that the state legislature would need to clarify the issue. (It has not to date.)
In addition to rights of publicity law, trademark law may also require a seller of celebrity paraphernalia to take a license from a dead celebrity’s representatives. Here, the issue is usually not survivability after death (because trademark rights normally do survive death), but whether the celebrity’s name has in fact become a trademark — an identifier of the source or origin of goods or services — and if so, for which specific categories of goods or services.
A company called Electric Hendrix LLC (“EH”) decided that it could sell Jimi-Hendrix-branded vodka without a license from Hendrix’s estate, because courts had already decided that Jimi’s rights of publicity did not survive his death (above), and his estate had not filed trademark registrations in any category remotely related to alcoholic beverages, and in fact had vowed it would never license alcohol-related products, so there was no likelihood of consumer confusion as to the source of the vodka, or so EH thought. Nevertheless, a Washington court found that EH was liable for trademark infringement, after performing an eight factor infringement analysis, emphasizing that: (a) consumers would be likely to assume that any Hendrix-branded products came from or were authorized by the Hendrix estate; and (b) evidence of the intent of EH to free-ride on Jimi’s fame was overwhelming. The court ordered the defendants to halt all sales of EH vodka, and to remove all product from store shelves. It is possible that Jimi’s celebrity status in his hometown of Seattle was a factor in the decision.