Publicity Rights When a Celebrity Passes Away


Intellectual property rights are mostly determined by federal law and international agreements. When a copyright holder passes away, it makes little difference where he or she lived. However, publicity rights, which govern who can use a person’s image and likeness, are different. They are mostly a matter of state law.

When a famous musician passes away, there is almost always a spike in interest in the musician’s work. This might lead someone to believe that the copyrights to that work are extremely valuable, but the truth is that in most cases they are not.

There is comparatively little money to be made by selling musical works. The musician’s publicity rights are often far more valuable to the estate than any copyrights.

This creates unique estate planning issues as IP Watchdog explains in “How do Estates Monetize Images and Intellectual Property of Dead Celebrities?

Unlike copyrights which are the subject of federal laws and the same everywhere in the U.S., publicity rights are a matter of state law. Their scope changes from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. A deceased celebrity who lived in Florida may leave an estate with very different publicity rights than a deceased celebrity who resided in New York.

Virtually every jurisdiction in the U.S. does recognize publicity rights, but the details vary. Some foreign jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom, do not recognize the rights at all.

What this means for anyone with publicity rights to protect is that it is very important to plan for them in an estate plan. It is vital to make sure that the laws in the state in which you reside are fully accounted for in your estate plan.

Reference: IP Watchdog (Aug. 10, 2016) “How do Estates Monetize Images and Intellectual Property of Dead Celebrities?

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