Copyright law is an interesting subsection of the legal
field. Fun fact: the Founding Fathers cared more about protecting copyrights
than any nebulous free speech rights. The right to copyright is established in
the original U.S. Constitution
enacted in September 1787. The Bill of Rights did not exist until 1789.
Additionally, one of the really cool quirks about copyrights
is how they are created. Copyright exists “the moment it is
created and fixed in a tangible form.” Alas, this cool quirk appears to
only be true in form, but not in substance. For the United States Supreme Court
recently ruled that before you can enforce a copyright, you must first go
through the complete administrative process of registering that copyright with the Copyright Office.
While the Court recognized that it is not an ideal situation, it effectively threw its hands up and said “the law is the law” without really addressing the downstream effects. I would now like to take the time to do what the Court would not, and address the direct effects of this new “registration is required” copyright world.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The most famous individual from the American civil rights movement left behind a impactful, while often misunderstood legacy, which still resonates across the world today. From an IP perspective, he also left behind a sizable amount of popular copyrighted works. Yes, the “I Have a Dream” speech is still protected by U.S. Copyright law today.
You still need to acquire permission from the King estate to use his works, including his speeches. While the estate has made some questionable decisions about who to license these works to, the fact remains that the estate maintains control over his name, his likeness, and his copyrighted works today.
But did you know that if not for Mickey Mouse and Sonny Bono, that the MLK estate would be losing the rights to these copyrighted works to the public domain this year? It’s true.
Last night, the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots to win Super Bowl LII®. By this point, the Super Bowl is more than just a football game. It is a literal spectacle, above and beyond the athletic competition itself. Not only do viewers get exposed to the glitz and glamour of the biggest game of the season, but there is also an extra-long halftime special. Not to mention the heavily-discussed commercials. Often, marketing firms will hire celebrities to appear in these commercials to add a little extra pizzazz. Of course, these celebrities usually agree to appear in these advertisements beforehand, with full knowledge that their likeness is being used for commercial gain. This year’s Super Bowl went a step further.
Prince, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Kurt Cobain are some of the most iconic individuals in American history and pop culture. They were also fiercely protective of how their names and images were used when they were alive. Today, their respective estates or other third-parties control how their “publicity rights” and how their likenesses are marketed. Yet somehow each of these three were all featured in different ways during the Super Bowl telecast, often in direct contrast to how they would have presented themselves during their lifetimes. How is this legal? I will try to address this interesting cross-section of trademark, copyright, and publicity right issues here.
On May 25, 1977, George Lucas unleashed Star Wars: A New Hope into the cinematic consciousness. A movie that cost $11 million to make generated nearly $800 million in worldwide box office receipts. Even at the time, it would have been hard to predict the scope of Star Wars in popular culture forty years later. In October 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm – and the rights to all things Star Wars – for $4 billion.
Not even Peter Minuit got as good of a deal for his 60 guilders when he acquired Manhattan.
It may not be an understatement to claim that the Star Wars property is collectively the most valuable intellectual property asset in modern history. I am not the first to assert this. Consider the ever-expanding scope of characters, stories, movies, books, toys, multimedia, and all the related technology that can be associated with Star Wars. With Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi opening on December 15, 2017, a deeper dive into the scope of Star Wars and its intellectual property universe seems timely and appropriate.
Comic book movies are big business. It was not always this way. Even if it seems that all Hollywood movies today are merely adaptations of comic book characters. Superman and Batman were always popular characters and were the focus of relatively successful movies. This includes the Christopher Reeve Superman movies through the launch of Tim Burton’s Batman franchise in 1989. But the recent trend of superhero dominance at the box office essentially began with Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000.
X-Men languished in development for years, but then surprised with a massive box office haul that summer – and made a star out of Hugh Jackman in the process. It also adopted the tone of the comic books and made it safe to adapt the concepts as a movie. The success of X-Men begat the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man franchise, which begat the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, and suddenly Warner/DC Comics’ and Marvel’s collective catalog of characters became hot property. Not all characters have been treated equally, however. Batman, for example, will always be seen as a safer bet than, say, Ghost Rider. Movies are budgeted accordingly.
Today, the average Hollywood movie budget exceeds $100 million. This includes salaries for the cast and crew, CGI costs, and in many cases… licensing rights. Yes, your favorite comic book characters are subject to both copyright and trademark protections. Like I said, it is big business.
How do these licensing and intellectual property issues affect the production of a movie for a minor character like, say, Deadpool? Let the games begin!