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Who owns rights to an actor’s face?
The question seems simple, but it really isn’t. Take Bradley Cooper and Liam Neeson, who once sued two home cinema companies for using a screenshot of the duo from the action film The A-Team to promote a large projection screen. Do Cooper and Neeson own the rights to their mugs as presented in A-Team or did the actors transfer those rights to the film’s studio, 20th Century Fox? Or take Peter Fonda, who sued Dolce & Gabbana after seeing T-shirts emblazoned with an image of him from the 1969 film Easy Rider. Were those rights transferred to Sony Pictures?
Those lawsuits were settled before a determination, but quietly, another lawsuit proceeded.
The legal action came from producer-director David Weisman, best known for producing best picture Oscar nominee Kiss of the Spider Woman. His first film, in 1972, was Ciao! Manhattan, which starred Edie Sedgwick in a semi-autobiographical story about the actress and model, who died of a drug overdose before the completion of the movie.
Sedgwick’s fame has endured thanks to her life as an Andy Warhol superstar and for reportedly being the inspiration behind such songs as Bob Dylan‘s “Just Like a Woman” and The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.”
In 2006, Sedgwick’s life was chronicled in the film Factory Girl, which starred Sienna Miller. At that time, Urban Outfitters was selling T-shirts and other merchandise bearing Sedgwick’s images from Ciao! Manhattan. The images were licensed from Weisman. After Factory Girl came out, Sedgwick’s late husband Michael Post began making noise about owning 100 percent of Sedgwick’s publicity rights and was soon making his own licensing deals.
In July 2011, Weisman sued Post and sought declaratory relief about owning Sedgwick’s publicity rights thanks to his 1970 Ciao! Manhattan contract with Sedgwick that granted the film producer “all rights, worldwide, in perpetuity, in all media and in all means whether presently known or unknown, to the results and proceeds of [Sedgwick’s] services.” The producer-director also sued Post’s licensees including Sanrio for copyright claims tied to the alleged misuse of Ciao! Manhattan. The copyright claims were then settled, but the dispute continued between Weisman and Post over who owned the model-actress’ publicity rights.
Post met Sedgwick in 1970 in the psychiatric ward of a mental health facility. The following year, they were married in Santa Barbara. Allegedly, on the night of Sedgwick’s death, she told him that she wanted to end their marriage, but the two never got divorced. According to Post’s court papers, he claims ownership of Sedgwick’s publicity rights because he’s “successor-in-interest” under California’s publicity rights law.
But even if that’s true — and there could be some question thanks to probate issues and the fact that California’s publicity rights law wasn’t enacted until 1985 — it’s still subordinate to what Sedgwick transferred away during her lifetime.
At an April hearing, U.S. District Judge George Wu spoke about Sedgwick’s 1970 contract with Weisman.
“It seems to the Court that it’s clear that the artist agreed to give the producer in perpetuity all rights to the results of the artist’s services in the movie, and the right to utilize the artist’s name, likeness and biography in connection with advertising or publicizing the motion picture,” said the judge. “So, therefore, the producer owns all of her images that were produced as a result of that … movie … and the producer can publicize that as the publisher wishes, and can, you know, also utilize her images from the motion pictures, itself, in TV, in cups, in T-shirts, in magazines, in whatever that the producer wants to do.”
That didn’t end the case, though, as there was still the question of whether Weisman’s rights extended even further. His lawyer argued that Weisman “owns all of Sedgwick’s publicity rights because all of Sedgwick’s commercial value stemmed from and arose out of his film Ciao! Manhattan.” Post’s lawyer disputed this, saying that Sedgwick had independent commercial value at the time of her death and pointed to other potentially licensable images, such as “wedding footage.”
In a ruling last week that ended the case, Judge Wu confirmed that Weisman owns rights to images of Sedgwick from his film, but that the producer hasn’t established a basis for ownership beyond that. The judge won’t get into whether Post has any rights to Sedgwick’s images, likeness or name, saying there’s no “live” controversy there, or at least, not one to be settled in his jurisdiction.
Perhaps the dispute will continue in California state court. In the meantime, the overall tenor of rulings from the case suggests that celebrities (and their heirs) don’t always have the legal authority to stop their faces from being featured on T-shirts and coffee mugs.
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