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), 23 Aug 2012 @ 12:44pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    First off, You're free to look at laws as whatever you want. But when you say you don't care what these things are called in the law or common parlance one wonders if you're living in a post-semantic world. Ok, that was a little rude. But my point stands. Consider them whatever you want. Call intellectual property "intellectual licorice" if you want! All you're saying is you don't like the verbiage, and that's your right.

    Now one thing we seem to agree upon is that patent, trademark, copyright, plant breeders rights, integrated circuit topography etc. sound kind of funny grouped under a single "domain" of law. It's weird, I admit it. But again it seems you're reducing your argument to a semantic game. Who cares what people call it? It is what it is!
    Sounds like you're trying to have your cake and eat it too.

    Why do you have the right to be alive? Assuming you're not going to give a religious answer, there are a few ways you can go here. The natural law theory way (which I admit I have limited experience with) or the positive law theory way. Without getting too deep into it, if you exclude religion and dogma, your right to life is based on the social contract you refer to. That's another way of saying that society itself determines your right to life. So I disagree when you say you "naturally" have a right to X. Naturally...truly naturally, might is right. All the proof you need is out there in nature (natural...nature...get it?)

    Now, as far as the natural right vs. artificial right (although you don't want to call it a right so...licorice?) the difference seems to be that in the right to life example, you feel that right is inherent. In the IP example, the right is granted by a democratically elected government. Granting that as true, I still fail to see why one is a right and the other isn't.

    You've drawn a distinction between two KINDS of rights and I agree with you that they're not the same. But you're still assuming your conclusion...I can't take this any farther unless you clear up that logical fallacy.

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