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. icon
    James Plotkin (profile), 22 Aug 2012 @ 11:27am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: I've learned a lot

    "I don't think that any right "trumps" any other. Rights conflict with each other all the time, and when they do then a balance must be found."

    I agree 100% John! I think we're singing the same tune here.

    I still take issue with your definition of rights. It isn't that it's wrong or anything. It's just (in my humble opinion) unduly restrictive.

    By "right" it seems you mean constitutional right. the Constitution (in Canada and I imagine most everywhere) is a law. In fact, it's the supreme law under which all others must comply to be valid. If not, they are deemed unconstitutional and struck down or amended.

    SO it seems your distinction between right and privilege is more temporal than anything. After all, the government passed the constitution (a law). A later government passed the copyright act (or whatever state statute houses the right of publicity in a given jurisdiction).

    So rights and privileges (by your definition) are both "powers" (for no other reason than choosing a word other than right or privilege). The difference between them is that the former is a law enshrined in a constitutional document and cannot be easily repealed (and is therefore applicable to all, even the government) and the other is a normal law that may or may not be applicable to the government and may be repealed by normal legislative process.

    Do I read you correctly?

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