The Business of a Legacy

A few weeks ago, Selma opened in theaters across the country.  The movie focuses upon the 1965 voting rights marches led by several civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King.  As reported in an article by Gene Demby entitled, “King’s Family Builds Its Own Legacy of Legal Battles,” published on NPR”s website, the film brings to the forefront the business of a legacy.

Most Americans are familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King’s image, his powerful speeches, and the prominent role that he played in society.  However, the makers of Selma encountered many legal obstacles in their efforts to recreate history for purposes of the story.  For example, without being able to secure licensing to use famous King speeches, the film’s writers had to write new speeches from scratch that captured the same spirit but eschewed the exact language King had used.  

Selma is only one example of many.  In recent years, PBS and USA Today encountered legal problems with using King’s image and publishing his speeches respectively without the estate’s permission.  To complicate matters even further, King’s children – the co-owners of his image and intellectual property rights – are not always in agreement about when and for what purpose to authorize the use of their father’s legacy and how much to charge for it.  

There are many other examples of images and intellectual property that have value long after a prominent figure dies.  

Although Marilyn Monroe was only 36 years of age when she passed away, she had the foresight to create a will.  However, she did not put enough thought into her will and left the majority of her estate to her acting coach with the “hope” that he would donate it to charity.  The charitable intent was not legally enforceable due to the manner in which she wrote her will and her acting coach never carried that wish out.  When he died in the early 1980s and left everything to his wife – a woman Marilyn had never met – she claimed that she had the rights to Marilyn’s image.  A court upheld that claim and the person earning millions of dollars per year from Marilyn’s image turned out to be a woman she never even met.  

After Elvis Presley’s death in 1977, his estate encountered legal trouble due to the management of the estate and poor tax reporting.  Presley’s ex-wife and the mother of his only child, Priscilla Presley, was advised to sell Elvis’ famous home, Graceland, in order to avoid bankruptcy.  Instead, she converted it into a tourist attraction which generated a healthy and steady stream of income.  Later, the estate pursued legal battles over the right to control and profit from Presley’s image and pursued acquiring intellectual property rights which created major changes to copyright and trademark law.

Although the average person does not have an image or intellectual property that is as valuable as the examples above, these stories do illustrate some important points that everybody should keep in mind.  First, everybody has an interest in how they will be remembered.  For some like King, Monroe, and Presley, that memory is on a global scale.  For others, it is limited to family, friends, and the local community, but is no less significant.  Second, whatever value a person’s estate has – whether it’s millions of dollars or only hundreds of dollars – most people want to be able to transfer that value to the beneficiaries of their choice in a specific time and manner and want to be able to protect their beneficiaries from unscrupulous individuals.  Finally, most people agree that they do not want their loved ones fighting over their legacy or their assets upon death and want to think about creative solutions to prevent or resolve potential conflict.  A properly drafted estate plan can protect these wishes for everybody, regardless of fame or fortune.  

KRASA LAW is located at 704-D Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove, CA, and Kyle may be reached at 831-920-0205831-920-0205.

Disclaimer: This article is intended for general information only.  Reading this article does not establish an attorney/client relationship.  Before acting upon any of the information presented in this article, you should consult a competent attorney who is licensed to practice law in your community.