Image Rights Explained: Entertainers & Show Business

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Image Rights Explained: MARILYN_MONROE_IN

A very bitter John Cleese recently complained of an Australian theatre company who had a “shameless rip-off” of ‘Fawlty Towers’ using all the characters from the TV comedy in a show which has a residency in London and abroad. Although there still maybe a case of copyright infringement, Cleese may have been better off taking out image ‘rights’ on the characters. This would have involved some form of royalty for the artistes who played those TV characters but it certainly would have given him more protection than he seems to have at the moment.

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The Guardian reported A newly uncovered document has revealed that Robin Williams was working to restrict usage of any images of himself for 25 years after his death. The Robin Williams Trust – a deed which has been filed as an exhibit during the division of his personal property – contains a detailed description of how Williams intended to be used in any publicity until 2039. The actor passed on rights to his name, signature, photograph and likeness to the Windfall Foundation, set up in his name.

What this means is that the actor won’t be digitally inserted into any films or adverts, such as what happened with the Audrey Hepburn Galaxy ad, until a pre-agreed date. It’s believed to be a new form of privacy contract based on the availability of new technologies, which Williams and his lawyers were clearly aware of and one which might affect future usage of deceased celebrities.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the uniquely structured agreement might be related to the problems surrounding the estate of Michael Jackson. The IRS has claimed that the government is owed more than $500m in taxes from his publicity rights. This case started brewing last February, six months before Williams’s death.

It is believed the actor’s family has reached a compromise in a legal battle for the rights to his belongings. His will allowed for his clothing, awards and other tangible personal property to be passed on to his children; meanwhile, his widow, Susan Schneider, has argued that she is entitled to other effects, such as his watches. Yesterday, both sides agreed to a meeting where items could be picked up, suggesting a peaceful end to the dispute.

What is the legal position around the use of the image of deceased celebrities? Apart from the comments above, any images of a deceased celebrity will still be subject to copyright protection. So, depending upon who is the copyright owner, they can still object to images being used.

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The Daily Mail reported an entertainment company is suing the estate of Hollywood actress Marylin Monroe over the right to use the dead actress’ three dimensional image.

Delaware based company Virtual Marilyn LLC claim that they are the federal copyright owner of an ‘audio visual work and character artwork depicting a computer generated virtual actress adopting the persona of Marilyn Monroe’. However, the late actress’ estate complains that Virtual Marilyn is ‘likely to confuse consumers’ and constitutes ‘unfair competition’. According to courtroom papers the virtual company claims that Marilyn Monroe’s ‘persona rights’ died along with the actress in 1962 and were never owned by her estate. The 13-page court document describes the case as ‘conflicting claims to ownership and use of different types of intellectual property rights involving the persona of the deceased human being Marilyn Monroe’. It describes her persona as ‘Marilyn Monroe’s name, image, likeness, signature and voice’. The case could have massive implications for the estates of other dead celebrities who have failed to register their image rights before the deaths.

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Image rights can take time to negotiate especially in a successful franchise series where the value can be considerable. It is even tougher when the series was created before modern agreements were concluded. ‘Variety’ reported in 2012 a long drawn out legal fight to develop the 1960’s Batman series had eventually been agreed. “For the first time in 40 years, Warner Bros. Consumer Products will be able to use the likeness of the show’s stars, including Adam West, Burt Ward, Cesar Romero and Burgess Meredith, on everything from apparel to toys, home goods, publishing and promotions.

WBCP introduced the new “Batman” product opportunities to potential partners and retailers at the Licensing Expo, running June 2012 in Las Vegas. Retailers had requested a larger merchandise line tied to the show over the years, but studio arm had previously been able to use only the series’ logo, POW!-packed animated opening sequence and the Batmobile for product, not the actors, due to rights issues as the series was produced by 20th Century Fox. As a result, studio was limited to a small line of T-shirts and a die-cast Batmobile made by Mattel. The Division is eager to exploit the “Batman” series, which aired on ABC from 1966-68, especially its colourful characters, gadgets like the Bat phone and Bat boat, and kitschy humour, an easier sell for retailers than the darker, more serious and gritty tone of Christopher Nolan’s film trilogy.


  • ‘The Guardian’ Robin Williams restricted use of his image for 25 years after his death 31 March 2015
  • ‘The Daily Mail’ Marilyn Monroe – ‘There’s No Business Like Virtual Showbusiness’ 2 October 2014
  • The Hollywood reporter ‘Batman TV show returning’ 23 March 2013

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