Wilt Chamberlain's Family Tries To Block Film About His College Years, Claiming 'Publicity Rights'

from the ugh dept

A filmmaker is trying to make a film about basketball great Wilt Chamberlain's college years at Kansas. However, his estate appears to be threatening the filmmaker if he goes ahead, claiming such things as publicity rights over Chamberlain's image (thanks to Nancy for sending this over).
“Please be advised that on December 21, 2001, the court approved that the Chamberlain Family are entitled to ‘all of the rights, titles and interests into the intellectual property and rights of publicity associated with the international sports celebrity in the name and likeness of Wilton Norman Chamberlain.’

“Kevin, therefore, I request on behalf of my family, and as outlined in our above-mentioned letters, that you do not violate these rights by pursuing the name and likeness of Wilt since you do not have permission from our family.”
We've discussed many times just how frequently publicity rights are being abused to stop basic speech, and this appears like another such case. While publicity rights depend on the specifics of state laws, it is generally not considered a violation in any way to make a film about a public figure. That's why something like The Social Network was allowed, despite Mark Zuckerberg's obviously distaste for a movie highlighting the various legal claims against him and Facebook.

Publicity rights are supposed to be about preventing someone's image from being used to endorse a product -- such as putting their image on a cereal box. According to this document (pdf), Kansas doesn't have a publicity rights law (or didn't back in 2010). So, perhaps they're claiming that some other state's laws might apply. The family appears to live in Las Vegas, and Nevada does have a publicity rights law, which extends 50 years after death -- so perhaps that's what they're relying on. Many other states don't recognize such rights after death.

Either way, this seems silly and not at all a publicity rights issue. No one is going to assume that this movie is necessarily endorsed by Chamberlain or his family, just as they don't naturally assume any sort of biopic was obviously endorsed by those the film is about (or their families). Instead, this just seems like a clear case of someone trying to use the law to censor a filmmaker. Shameful.

Filed Under: films, kansas, likeness, publicity rights, wilt chamberlain


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  1. identicon
    Dave Xanatos, 22 Aug 2012 @ 10:59am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Moving away from existentialism, even if you take the legal framework away from tangible property, you still have something physical that you can take possession of and deny its use to others. The legal fiction of property ownership (and I would argue against that term here, but whatever) is actually an extension of that natural ability. The legal framework of ownership was put in place to prevent the anarchy that could exist in a society where I only own what I can physically defend. Our society has decided that legally enforced property ownership is preferred.

    - I personally feel it is a bad thing to have laws that are unenforceable. Laws that are generally unenforceable frequently become laws that are selectively enforced according to the whim of government or industry. They are laws meant to be used by the big guys against the little guys, and seldom if ever the other way around. IP law, in general and in specifics has become this. I agree with you that a more permissive legal frame work would be more enforceable. Where enforcement has been more effective is in the commercial sphere. Remove non-commercial infringement and codify fair-use in a much less objective manner and it would become orders of magnitude more enforceable.

    I like having a framework that creators can use to receive compensation and encourage more creation, and a This won't happen, however. Or if it did, it wouldn't keep. If copyright, patent, publicity, trade secret laws are kept in place, those receiving rents from them will continue to seek their expansion, and will use the rents they are granted to do so. So while I might favor curtailing copyright rather than abolition, history has made it clear that a limited copyright won't stay limited.

    -Copyright is supposed to serve society. I really don't see how protecting a family's ability to make money off a dead relative's legacy serves anyone but that family.

    And overall, I would prefer more black and white in law than the sea of ambiguity that we have now. The uncertainty helps lawyers, but not many others.

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