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 @ 6:31am

    Re: Re:

    1)"Haven't you heard of a 'legal fiction'?"

    Why yes I have! In fact, intellectual property is a legal fiction. But so are a lot of other things. A legal fiction simply refers to a concept created within the law to deal with a given problem or situation. Copyright is a body of law developed from the "need" for authors to protect ownership in their "intellectual creations". Patent law is much the same except for inventions of utility.

    The point is that the fact that IP is a legal fiction doesn't mean that it doesn't exist (as a subject, concept, word, or anything else). It's quite real. It has real world implications and is the subject of a rich an expanding body of case law. So either way, it's just silly to say that IP doesn't exist. You can say it's not tangible (and I would be the first to agree with you), but you can't say it doesn't exist regardless of the meaning you assign to the word "exist".

    2) "They do so under guise of protecting reputation and privacy, even though the information could be wholly factual and easily learned from public sources"

    The right to privacy protects people's privacy. The right of publicity is what protects a persons right to exploit their image. Again, they are two sides of the same coin (publicity rights or "droit a l'image" in French). I've explained this above, it isn't the information (or data as I called it) that is protected by the right of publicity. In fact, raw data isn't protected by copyright either.

    People are conflating way too many concepts here. The FACT (in the literal sense of the word fact) that Wilt Chamberlain had a thin mustache is not protected by either the right of publicity or copyright law. For a more detailed explanation I would recommend any substantial doctrinal writing on copyright law and right of publicity...I gotta get back to work :)

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