Celebrity image rights

'Is it legal', 'can I do this' type questions and discussions.
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MrPunch
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Celebrity image rights

Post by MrPunch »

I'm looking at creating a horror comicbook based on an original idea of my own. What I'd like to do, is use Vincent Price (for example) as the main character and effectively trace his face onto the character in the pages.

From what Ive read in other similar threads here, is as long as I use an old 'out of copyright' movie as my source... and as long as the subject is dead... I should be okay? Have I got that right?

The tricky thing here appears to be confirming if an old movie IS actually out of copyright.

Supplemental question: don't dead celebrities still have image rights? Im thinking of a recent energy advert on tv that uses Einstein... digital rights are listed onscreen during the advert itself.
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AndyJ
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Re: Celebrity image rights

Post by AndyJ »

Hi Mr Punch,

I think your last point may be more important than the copyright issue. I think that since Mr Price died in the state of California and was resident there in the latter part of his life, we need to consider the Califiornia Celebrities Rights Act*. This protects the name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness of a 'celebrity' for 70 years after their death, where the intended use is deemed to be commercial. This would cover the use of any of those characteristics in the advertising or endorsement of a product. However the Act makes it clear that "a play, book, magazine, newspaper, musical composition, audiovisual work, radio or television program, single and original work of art, work of political or newsworthy value, or an advertisement or commercial announcement for any of these works, shall not be considered a product, article of merchandise, good, or service if it is fictional or nonfictional entertainment, or a dramatic, literary, or musical work." I have no knowledge about the caselaw resulting from previous claims made under this Act, and so I don't know exactly how the courts have treated the use of a celebrity's likeness etc, in a work of fiction, but based on what the statute says, you should be in the clear.

Price didn't make his first film until 1938 so none of his films will be in the public domain in the US solely by virtue of the 95 year rule brought in by the 1976 Copyright Act. However it is more than possible that one or more of his films, made before that Act came into force may have ceased to be protected by copyright because of a failure to register or re-register the film with the US Copyright Office, or for some other fault, such as not displaying a copyright notice, although I would be surprised if the latter applied to any Hollywood film. I suggest you start with this Wikipedia article. Alternatively you could use the list of films in Price's IMDB entry and cross check each one against the US Copyright Office registrations. This would be very time-consuming. Bear in mind that any of the films Price made in the UK would be subject to UK copyright law, which generally speaking said that until 1995, copyright in films lasted for 50 years from the date of first release. In other words a film made in the UK before 1945 would be out of copyright here. However I don't think Price was making films here at that time, despite titles like The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and Tower of London.

* Technically the Act applies to all residents of Califiornia, although obviously it was primarily intended to protect celebrities as they are the only people who are likely to have their characteristics used to sell stuff.
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MrPunch
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Re: Celebrity image rights

Post by MrPunch »

Thanks for the lengthy response as usual!

Many sites, including the wikipedia article you cited, show Price's The House on Haunted Hill, and The Last Man on Earth as being in public domain. Though it's really tough to find a definitive "Yes this movie is definitely in the public domain and safe to use" answer!
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AndyJ
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Re: Celebrity image rights

Post by AndyJ »

Hi Mr Punch,

We have discussed House of Haunted Hill before on the forums, see this thread. The best way to check the validity of a claim about a film being in the public domain is to look it up in the US Copyright Office registrations which I linked to in my previous posting. Go to the year which is 27 years from the initial release of the film and see if the film was re-rergistered. US copyright from that period gained 28 years of iintial protection following registration, and renewal for a further 28 years was possible, provided this was done in the 27th year and before the first term had ended. Failure to do so meant that the film etc ceased to have copyright protection in the USA from the end of the first term. Because most other countries in the world have decided not to grant a copyright term which is longer than is available in the country of origin (for instance, see section 13B(7) of the CDPA), that means that where a US film or other work had not been re-registgered correctly, it will have entered the public domain in virtually all countries, irrespective of the different terms which existed elsewhere.

Addendum. Although it doesn't affect this particular film, for the sake of completeness I should add that any work first registered between 1 January 1964 and 31 December 1977 is automatically granted a 67 year extension to the term of copyright (that is the normal 95 year term minus the 28 years already granted) irrespective of whether re-registration occurs. Works first registered after 31 December 1977 get the normal lifetime of the author plus (now) 70 years after death. House on Haunted Hill was released in 1959 so it didn't qualify for this treatment, assuming there was in fact no re-registration.
Advice or comment provided here is not and does not purport to be legal advice as defined by s.12 of Legal Services Act 2007
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