Heirs’ Right of Publicity

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When I read about one of the recent “right of publicity” cases, I thought back to the Eighties and “Who Shot JR?”  This is because Mary Crosby, as the character Kristin Shepard, was the one who shot JR in 1980 on the widely popular show “DALLAS.”

The case Bing Crosby v. HLC Props., Ltd., No. B242089 (Calif. Ct. App. 2nd App. Dist. Div. 3 January 29, 2014) decided last week involved the battle between Kathryn Crosby (Mary’s mother) and Bing’s first wife, for the proceeds from Mary’s father Bing Crosby’s right of publicity.

The right of publicity involves the right of an individual to control and profit from the commercial use of his or her name, image, likeness, or other unequivocal aspects of one’s identity.  This right of publicity or right of personality often survives death.   Indeed, many states have statutes that allow for a celebrity to transfer a right of privacy to his or her heirs.

A recent decision in California involving the late Bing Crosby was decided last month.   Superstar Crosby’s divorce settlement with his first wife Wilma involved a release.  The release was for a final settlement of all claims from any source whatsoever of royalties, income, or monies due Wilma’s Trust and all beneficiaries of the Trust, arising from property interests acquired by Wilma as a result of her marriage to Bing Crosby, through the date of the Agreement.

The issue before the appellate court was whether the right of privacy was discovered in the future; and therefore, it was outside the settlement agreement.  The statute at issue related to transferring the right of privacy at death.  The appellate court found that the statute only clarified existing law so it did not fall within the exception to the settlement agreement related to creating “new” rights.  In sum, the second wife, Kathryn, won because the first wife settled all claims including those related to the right of publicity.

This may result in Mary Crosby ultimately receiving proceeds from her late father’s right of publicity.