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
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Aug 2012 @ 11:52am

    Re: Re: Incorrect

    "Mike, this has nothing to do with freedom of speech. If someone wanted to make a movie about you, and you weren't OK with it, you would likely oppose the project."

    And I shouldn't have any legal right to do so. In fact, I find the idea that you think this is reasonable quite scary.

    But, in fact you do. Why should your right to privacy be only limited to deep packet inspection and warrantless GPS locating?

    "I appreciate your vigor. But not everything has to be a First Amendment issue. I've seen articles on tech dirt vigorously defending a persons right to privacy. Why not now?"

    There's no privacy issue here. This is a movie about a historical figure's life, built off of public information.

    I am not sure about the implications of the court's award. I do view the award as something akin to an inheritance by his heirs. His life, image, reputation and accomplishments have commercial value- not solely historical value. Why should someone who was not awarded those rights be allowed to profit from them; particularly if it could impact the heirs own ability to monetize his legacy?

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