Did you know that the California Secretary of State has a registry of the names of the successor in interest of deceased personalities? The California Celebrities Rights Act of 1986 created an inheritable right to a person’s name or likeness for 70 years after death. Legislation passed in 2007 extended that right retroactively to all persons who have died since January 1, 1938. This right was recognized by the California Supreme Court after an eleven year court battle between the heirs of Bela Lugosi and Universal Studios.
The Act provides that a deceased personality’s name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness, is intellectual property and belongs to his/her heirs unless contracted to someone else and may not be used on or in products, merchandise, or goods, or for purposes of advertising or selling, or soliciting purchases of, products, merchandise, goods, or services, without prior consent from the successors-in-interest.
A person who violates California Civil Code Section 3344.1 is liable to the successors-in-interest(s) in an amount equal to the greater of seven hundred fifty dollars ($750) or the actual damages suffered by the injured party or parties, as a result of the unauthorized use. Any profits derived from the unauthorized use must also be disgorged. In establishing such profits, the successors-in-interest(s) are required to present proof only of the gross revenue and the person who violated the section is required to prove his/her deductible expenses. Punitive damages may also be awarded to the injured party or parties. The prevailing party is also be entitled to attorney’s fees and costs.
There are other provisions under the Act relating to priorities and permitted uses without consent. To be on the safe side, however, you should try to get permission from the successor-in-interest and/or consult an East Bay intellectual property attorney.