Judge Halts Auction of Whitney Houston's Emmy

The Television Academy succeeds at the preliminary stage in showing a likelihood of victory in the lawsuit and irreperable harm from a planned sale.
Chris Walter/WireImage; Courtesy of Academy of Television Arts and Sciences

A California federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order blocking Heritage Auctions from going forward with its original plan to sell on Friday the Emmy statuette that Whitney Houston won in 1986 for her performance in Saving All My Love for You.

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has convinced U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson that it is likely to prevail in the lawsuit filed Wednesday against Heritage and the Whitney Houston Estate that a sale of the Emmy would constitute copyright infringement and conversion. The complaint states that when an artist is recognized for an achievement, it lends a copy of the Emmy statuette to the artist to signify and symbolize the honor, and while artist's heirs and successors in interest are permitted to retain custody, the Academy makes clear an honoree or heir can't sell it.

The Television Academy told the judge, "If Heritage's highly publicized auction is allowed to go forward, it will undermine the prestige of the Emmy Award and tarnish the Television Academy's reputation, leaving the impression that the highest honor in the television industry is a commodity available for sale to the highest bidder."

In response to a push for a TRO, Heritage said that the Academy presented no evidence that Houston ever assented to or was aware of the property restrictions and couldn't overcome copyright law's "first sale doctrine," which gives those who legally obtain copies of copyrighted work the right to sell, display or otherwise dispose of that particular copy notwithstanding the interests of the copyright holder. Heritage also told the judge that the Academy didn't establish rules reserving ownership rights until years after Houston won her Emmy, and that a sticker on the bottom of the statuette purporting to retain title couldn't impose obligations on Houston and her heirs.

If the statuette was merely a loan instead of a transfer of ownership, then the "first sale doctrine" wouldn't apply.

In a ruling late Thursday, Anderson gave the first round to the Academy for establishing a strong likelihood of success on the merits of its claims.

"Specifically, the Court concludes that the Television Academy has met its burden that the Emmy statuette given to Ms. Houston for her to take home, as opposed to the prop statuette presented during the awards ceremony, contained the label stating that the statuette 'is the property of and all rights are reserved by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences,'” he writes. "Contrary to Heritage’s assertion that the Television Academy is attempting to enforce an agreement between the Television Academy and Ms. Houston that she did not sign or agree to be bound by, the label is instead evidence of the Television Academy’s ownership of the statuette, not evidence of an unenforceable agreement between the parties."

The Television Academy, represented by attorney David Quinto, also succeeded in the factor necessary in obtaining a TRO by convincing the judge it would suffer irreparable harm with the transfer of Whitney Houston's Emmy.

The effect of the decision means that Heritage is for now barred from going ahead with the planned auction, although it will get another chance to make arguments before a judge possible converts the TRO into a preliminary injunction. Anderson has set a hearing on an order to show cause why a preliminary injunction should not issue for July 7 and has told the Television Academy that it needs to put up a $10,000 bond in the interim. 

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