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Happy Days, the infamous sitcom which ran from 1974 to 1984, represents an era with classic American values–a simpler, happier time. However, it also reflects a time when both actors and studios did not fully understand or adequately contract around publicity rights.
Publicity rights are the rights to a celebrity’s image and likeness. To print Marilyn Monroe’s face on a t-shirt, for instance, one must own publicity rights to her likeness. These rights can prove quite lucrative. However, state common law and statutory law governs these rights, and in many cases the law is unsettled or new. For example, the governor of Indiana signed its newest publicity rights bill into law just this year. And in 2007, California amended its publicity rights law to clarify that these rights are transferable, descendable, and may apply retroactively. The law in this area is developing, thus contracts between actors and studios drafted several decades ago did not always adequately address publicity rights issues.
Some stars tragically forfeited their publicity rights. For example , Carrie Fisher, who was cast as Princess Leia at the age of 19, told Newsweek last year that she signed away her rights to her likeness to George Lucas before making the Star Wars films. In other words, she has never made a penny off of any Star Wars merchandise that contained her image.
Other celebrities incorporated publicity rights into their contracts but have had disputes over the scope of those rights. The most recent of these disputes involved the cast of Happy Days. In April of 2011, the cast of Happy Days (excluding Ron Howard and Henry Winkler) sued CBS for failing to pay revenue received from Happy Days merchandise. The cast claimed that although CBS had legally licensed their likeness to third parties that sold Happy Days merchandise, such as lunch boxes, board games, or greeting cards, the cast had not received their share of the revenue. In particular, the cast noted new Happy Days gambling machines and DVD box sets for which they had not been compensated.
The cast members, according to their contract, were entitled to 5% of the revenue received from the merchandise. However, they relied upon the studio, CBS, to provide them with the financial information regarding this revenue. CBS allegedly not only failed to provide the cast with these financial statements but also failed to pay the cast their cut of the profits; thus, the actors sued for breach of contract and fraud, seeking over $10 million. This week, the lawsuit settled, and each cast member party to the suit received $65,000.
Many actors from movies and television series in this era recently filed similar lawsuits. For example, the actors who played the sheriff in Dukes of Hazzard and the bully in A Christmas Story both filed suits against Warner Bros. seeking unpaid royalties. As publicity rights laws become more common and awareness increases, however, hopefully contracts will better define royalties based on these rights. This would decrease the number of suits filed and lead to happy days.
– Frances Kammeraad
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