Most of us are aware that famous persons can control and profit from the use of their identities during their lifetimes. Indeed, many celebrities are said to make much more from the selling of their endorsements and likenesses than from the activities that made them famous in the first place. Essential to securing this type of revenue stream is legal recognition of one’s “identity” as a property right. Granting individual identity the status of property means that the non-owner must have permission to use it. This permits individuals such as Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey and Madonna to package and sell publicity rights while imposing any restrictions on the use of their names, likenesses or images they choose.
But what happens when the celebrity dies? Do the heirs and beneficiaries of dead celebrities succeed to their publicity rights, allowing them to market and profit from them? That turns out to be a complicated question. And it’s a question that has heated up considerably in recent years.
Some states, such as California, recognize postmortem publicity rights, and some, such as New York, do not. One issue that presents considerable difficulty is which state’s law controls. Descendible publicity rights also raise sticky federal estate tax issues. Valuation is sure to be complicated and contested (a “herculean task” according to some experts), and discharging the tax obligation virtually requires that the property rights be exploited.
Perhaps most interesting are the policy questions. In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Boston College law professor Ray Madoff argues that postmortem rights of publicity are “getting out of control.” She points out that the identities of important historical figures, such as Rosa Parks and Albert Einstein, are now being used to sell products, and raises concerns about whether literary endeavors involving these figures will infringe on property rights held by their heirs and the companies to whom those rights were sold.
Madoff also contends that while the preservation of proprietary rights in the identities of the dead makes money for heirs and companies, it is unlikely that a famous person would be able to take action during life to prevent a postmortem sale of those rights. She cites a longstanding principle of wills law that a person cannot effectively decree that their property be destroyed at their death. Further, those rights may have to be sold to raise money to pay the bloated estate tax bill accruing as a result of this property interest. Professor Madoff concludes that Congress should enact a preemptive federal statute that provides for a property right that is limited in time and that allows an individual to prevent the endurance of publicity rights after death.
Although Madoff’s proposed solution has precedent in federal trademark and copyright law, don’t look for federal legislation in this area anytime soon. In the meantime, with so much money to be made off of the famous dead, and with the laws in this area being so unsettled, litigation is sure to proliferate.