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
    G Thompson (profile), 21 Aug 2012 @ 11:54pm

    Re: Re:

    Publicity/Personality rights are something that I don't have much (if any) knowledge about within the USA.

    Passing off (as the original common law) is still within Australia though can only be used in situations where it is misleading for commercial gain. Defamation though is another beast entirely and is being used as a stick lately, admittedly not very well by celeb/public figures.

    My question is would this still be an actionable situation under USA styled Publicity rights if the film makers made the film elsewhere. Canada perhaps? Though I see Krouse v. Chrysler (1971) and Athans v. Canadian Adventure Camps (1977) have expanded on the usage of passing off when dealing with an individuals image.

    On a side note: I like your blog

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