Celebrities, Even Dead Ones, Have Rights These Clients Can’t Complain, But Their Lawyer Sure Will
The image wasn’t flattering: There was Albert Einstein himself, the long-deceased father of modern physics, with his head half-shaved, posing as a loopy-looking pitchman for a hair-loss ad in the sports pages.
“It’s all relative,” read the medical center blurb. “A genius wouldn’t buy hair by the graft.”
Like many readers, Roger Richman spotted the ad, and it didn’t take an Einstein to figure out he wasn’t amused. Within days, he had composed a hard-edged little missive to the responsible advertising agency: Pull the ad, he warned, or we’ll see you in court.
Call him one of this city’s dead-celebrity cops. As owner of a Beverly Hills-based celebrity licensing agency, Richman polices trademark infringements for the heirs and beneficiaries of 45 deceased figures, from Einstein and Sigmund Freud to W.C. Fields, Rod Serling, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Durante, Mae West, even the Wright brothers.
Want to sell polyester suits using gumshoe Jack Webb as your model? Go see Richman first.
Want to use Groucho Marx to sell cigars?
Or Basil Rathbone to hawk magnifying glasses? You got it: Talk to Richman. Show him your idea. Don’t insult his delicate sensibilities. Agree to pay him a licensing fee (he gets 35 percent).
And maybe, just maybe, you can do business.
For nearly 20 years, the 53-year-old lawyer and former movie financier has pursued a profession that’s considered odd even by Hollywood standards. From his high-rise office, decorated with a family photo of himself as a baby being held by Einstein (his father was a rabbi who once met the physicist), Richman battles the unauthorized use of his clients’ faces, voices, even their signatures.
He also helps decide which advertising opportunities are right for both living and dead clients and which would soil an image that took a lifetime to develop.
Richman’s work never ends. Unauthorized products and ad pitches using celebrity images run from the absurd to the insulting: There’s the postcard of a W.C. Fields look-alike posing in the near-nude and greeting cards depicting Judy Garland and Clark Gable in pornographic and sadomasochistic poses.
And there’s the coup de grace of bad taste Richman spotted last year in Las Vegas: John Wayne toilet tissue.
Richman and other celebrity-rights proponents argue that the heirs of these late legends have a right to control and benefit financially from the use of their images.
“These people are the most exceptional personalities of our time,” he said. “They should be cherished as national treasures and not subject to abuse by being used to sell scatological products or worse.”
Some advertisers and manufacturers often beg to differ. For advertisers, dead celebrities are the perfect pitchmen: They don’t get arrested or tarnish the image of products as the living often do.
Those manufacturers who defy Richman say that celebrities become part of the public domain after their deaths and that no one has the right to license their images. But Richman and a growing number of licensing agents successfully have countered that argument.
In 1984, Richman flew to Sacramento, Calif., with the sons of John Wayne, Harpo Marx and Abbott and Costello and the grandson of W.C. Fields to press legislators for protection of the images of deceased celebrities. The result was the California Celebrity Rights Act, which forbids the unauthorized use of a celebrity image - including a name, voice, signature, photograph or likeness - without permission of the family for 50 years after the figure’s death.
Since then, a dozen states have passed similar laws, protecting Groucho Marx’s bushy eyebrows, W.C. Fields’ cane, carnation and top hat, Marilyn Monroe’s voice - even Einstein’s shock of wispy white hair.
“Right of publicity is an asset, a very valuable asset,” said attorney Shirley Hufstedler, a former federal secretary of education who now specializes in celebrity-rights cases and has represented Richman’s licensing agency.
“When people create a valuable image by winning the Nobel Peace Prize or by becoming a world-famous athlete, others want to take advantage of that image for their own profit, doing some perfectly dreadful things. But the image doesn’t belong to them.”
In a time when celebrity images are beamed worldwide by CNN and satellite television, Richman plans to press his battle around the globe - where John Wayne has been used to sell cigarettes in Spain and where Einstein pitches insurance in South Africa.
This month, he’s heading to Beijing to sign an agreement with a trading company owned by the Chinese government for selective use of Einstein’s image in China.
Richman has agents in 19 countries. Like him, they frequent flea markets, clip newspapers and monitor television and radio in search of unauthorized ads.
Of all his clients, Einstein is the biggest draw. Richman employs nearly a dozen law firms worldwide to police his image. “Einstein has instant recognizability,” he said. “I have four attorneys who work nothing else but Albert.”
Richman got his start in 1979 after a court decision regarding the estate of film legend Bela Lugosi. The late actor’s son had sued Universal Studios for a percentage of the profits made from his image.
The younger Lugosi lost his fight. But the 80-page court decision contained a new interpretation of the law that set Richman thinking: Although the family could not control Lugosi’s image, the judges ruled, no one else could appropriate it either - as long as one could show proof that the artists had merchandised themselves while alive.
With that, Richman went to swap meets and garage sales in search of ads stars might have made during their lifetimes. With those in hand, he began his search for unauthorized modern images of dead stars and went after the pirates on behalf of the families.
Early on, at the request of the family of W.C. Fields, Richman successfully pressed the U.S. Postal Service to pay a fee to use the actor’s image on a postage stamp.
“We had gone to other agencies to represent W.C., and they acted like it was a foreign concept to protect the dead,” said Everett Fields, a Los Angeles attorney and vice president of W.C. Fields Productions. “Roger grasped the idea right away.”
While addressing California legislators in 1984, Richman showed how tasteless the image rip-offs can be. There was the card that included a vial of Elvis Presley’s sweat with the pitch: “His many years of perspiration can now be your inspiration.”
These days, Richman is pushing for federal legislation to guarantee celebrity rights nationwide. And he works to choose ads that lend clients just the right image.
Such as John Wayne selling Coors beer, Einstein hawking Apple computers, Steve McQueen modeling leather wear for motorcycles and Audrey Hepburn pushing sunglasses.
Sometimes, large organizations have been willed the estates of dead stars. Richman works with seven charities that handle the estate of Mae West. Einstein’s estate is run by Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“They’re choosy,” he said. “No alcohol. No cigarettes. No women’s hygiene products.”
Still, Richman is proud of such dead celebrity star power that can allow Jack Webb to sell Lotus computer software and Jimmy Durante to pitch Kellogg’s cereal.
“The Coors ad was the first commercial use of Wayne’s image the family has allowed since his death,” he said. “But the ad has been limited to 61 total broadcasts so as not to dilute the character.”
Einstein has had no such luck. Consider the hair-loss ad for Sword Medical Center in Torrance, Calif.
The agency that produced the ad said it meant no harm. “We did some tests and this ad came out on top of all the others,” said Mark Deo, owner of IT Advertising, who said he would pull the ad.
“Albert Einstein has a distinctive face. He gets people’s attention. But we certainly don’t want to offend Mr. Einstein’s family. That’s the last thing we want to do.”