This past summer, I had the honor of being invited to join the Boston College Law Review. BCLR is one of five academic journals operated on campus by BC Law students. Like much of law school, it’s a great learning opportunity that requires a lot of hard work.
Membership on journals is made up of about an equal number of 3Ls and 2Ls. Generally, the 3Ls serve as editors and the 2Ls serve as staff writers. I can’t speak to what it’s like to be an editor, but what I find to be the best part about being a staff writer is the opportunity to research and write a Note about a topic of your own choosing. So what did I choose for my Note topic?
I pitched the topic as “jurisdictional limitations on the postmortem right of publicity.” What that means in English is that the estates of celebrities love to keep other people from using those celebrities’ images to make money, and they come up with creative and not-always-legal ways to do it.
Jimi Hendrix is the subject of the most recent and perhaps game-changing round of litigation, but the history of the issue predates even the release of his first album. The first groundbreaking case involves the estate of…
That’s right, the late actor Bela Lugosi, better known as the star of the 1931 film Dracula. When I enrolled at BCLS, did I think I’d be researching horror movies that were known at the time of their release as “talkies”? Goes to show, nobody really knows what law school entails until they’re already doing it.
Anyway, some of the most influential of the early cases involving this issue centered around a celebrity that many people refuse to admit is actually dead.
Did you know that the Tennessee state legislature passed a law that created a right that lets Elvis’ estate maintain the exclusive right to profit from his likeness? And that it doesn’t ever expire as long as they continue to use that right to make money? I think I was listening to “Jailhouse Rock” when I found that out. The law can be a funny thing.
But when it comes to the crazy lengths that estates are willing to go to maximize the money they make, it’s the estate of one celebrity in particular that takes the cake.
To keep a decades-long story relatively short, Marilyn Monroe left the majority of her estate to her acting coach, Lee Strasberg. When he died, he left his interest in Monroe’s estate to his wife. She decided to hire a marketing company to manage Monroe’s estate, and that’s when things got interesting.
The CEO of the company wrote a piece of legislation that essentially granted his company the exclusive ability to profit from Marilyn Monroe’s image. He lobbied to have it passed in the Indiana state legislature. (Why Indiana? Because that’s where he lived.) THEN, the company started going around the country suing everyone who was selling anything featuring a picture of Marilyn Monroe, even if those people were under the (correct) impression that they were perfectly within their rights to sell those items.
I won’t spoil the surprise of how those cases turned out or reveal the entirety of my Note in a blog post. I’ll just leave you with the biggest takeaway I’ve learned from researching this topic: nobody running Marilyn Monroe’s estate seems very interested in how Marilyn Monroe would have wanted the issue handled.
She sang that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, and it’s entirely cold hard cash making all these lawsuits fly around.
Thank you for reading.
I am currently in my fourth semester at BC Law and my second as a member of the Boston College Law Review. Feel free to contact me with questions about my experience, BC Law, or law school in general. Comment here or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and don’t forget to follow the Boston College Law Students Association on Twitter @BCLSA.