What's at Stake in the Shirelles' Lawsuit Against Warner Bros. Over Broadway's 'Baby It's You'

On the day that Warner Bros. premiered its new Broadway musical, Baby It's You, surviving members of pioneering American girl group The Shirelles have filed a lawsuit against the studio for using their names and likenesses in connection with the show.

According to the musical's synopsis, Baby It's You tells the story of Florence Greenberg, the woman who changed the recording world forever when she discovered The Shirelles and created Scepter Records, becoming the music industry's first female powerhouse.

The Shirelles, including recent Celebrity Apprentice star Dionne Warwick (who gained her first exposure when subbing for some of the members in the 1960s), claim that "having been cheated out of their royalties when they were young and popular, are now victimized again."

The lawsuit marks the latest in the escalating legal tug-of-war between publicity rights and the First Amendment.

Just imagine for a moment what the Oscars this year might have looked like if the subjects of the movies had asserted publicity rights to shut down biographical treatments. Mark Zuckerberg could have claimed that The Social Network violated his name and likeness. The Royal Family in Britain could have objected to The King's Speech for using royal figures without permission. Not even Toy Story 3 might have gotten a pass. After all, Buzz Aldrin, who just sued Topps Inc. for putting a photograph of his historic moon journey on a trading card, might want to assert a case that the animated Tim Allen-voiced astronaut character known as "Buzz Lightyear" violates his likeness.

The Shirelles are suing in New York court but claiming violations in California and New Jersey -- states that have attractive publicity rights statutes for plaintiffs, as we've seen with the former Iraqi war soldier who made claims against The Hurt Locker. The singers allege that Warner Bros. had knowledge that written consent from the plaintiffs was a "necessary prerequisite" for using their names, likenesses and biographical information. The Shirelles are claiming unspecified monetary damages, but what might be more significant is the precedent this case sets if it isn't settled and goes to trial.

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner

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