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

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. icon
    James Plotkin (profile), 22 Aug 2012 @ 7:58am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Thank you for the well thought out reply.

    - As far as the real vs. legal fiction goes, I think we may be getting a little too metaphysical here. Almost all law, including real property, is a legal fiction at one level or another. There is nothing objectively "ownable" about property (note that by objective I mean true of the object in and of itself). There is nothing about a piece of land that suggests ownership. Proof of this is the way aboriginals view land. They had no concept of property before it was imposed on them. So I think any further discussion on the "existence of IP" is semantical and pointless.

    - As far as what's unenforceable and counter to human intuition, many laws are such. I think we should stop using the blanket term IP at this point. Trademark and to a lesser extent patent rights are quite enforceable. Copyright is somewhat special in that the advent of the Internet has drastically changed the way people consume copyrighted content.

    I still disagree with you in that I think it could be enforceable if a more suitable (and permissive...but that's just my opinion) copyright regime was installed in the place of the current approach. In both the US and here in Canada, governments have taken a hard line approach to copyright legislation. It doesn't have to be that way. It isn't an all or nothing; by which I mean that it isn't harsh copyright law or no copyright law. There must be a happy medium that both recognizes an authors right in his creation and consumers right as a member of the general public.

    Remember, IP laws in general are supposed to benefit society as a whole by balancing the interests of creators and users. If the current incarnations of these laws are failing, that doesn't mean that IP generally and copyright in specific fail as concepts. At the very least it doesn't logically follow.

    - Once again, information may be used freely. So can ideas. We're talking about something that is comparatively limited or small- the persona of a person. If a character in a movie by chance happens so have some similar physical traits to Wilt Chamberlain, the latter's right of publicity is not necessarily infringed. There is a legal test (which I won't get into here) that may be argued from both sides.

    The law isn't black and white. Even when it is, often a good litigator can plead either side of a legal question. I think many of those participating in this discussion should remember that. Whether or not a person has a cause of action is one question. However, even if they do, they still have to convince a judge (or jury) that they're right and that the other side's argument holds no (or at least less) merit. That's the beauty of the law...to me anyways...

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: Copying Is Not Theft
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.