Tuesday, September 25, 2007

San Francisco Chronicle


Popular use, even after proposed regulation, skirts the real issue: exploitation by exhumation

Sunday, September 9, 2007

There is a bill pending in the California Senate designed to protect the images of dead celebrities. Essentially, SB771 will bolster a similar law enacted in 1985, devised to defend the "postmortem right of publicity" held by the heirs of famous people.

The bill would guard against the unlawful use of the likenesses, voices and even signatures of dead icons for commercial purposes. Naturally, there is plenty of opposition. If the bill passes, publicity rights held in the public domain for decades could be retroactively nullified, and the courts flooded with lawsuits.

Though most of us won't lose any sleep over the fate of SB771, there are some of us who think that the bill doesn't go nearly far enough, or that the images of the dead are being "protected" at all.

Does the term "postmortem right of publicity" seem at all creepy to anyone? Apparently not to advertisers. Though your average 20-year-old looks at you dumbfounded when asked whether he or she knows who the Beatles were, dead icons like Marilyn Monroe, Steve McQueen and Grace Kelly still carry clout in certain niche demographics. (You might remember Audrey Hepburn recently dancing for the Gap, or Rosa Parks in a spot for Chevrolet).

Celebrity marketers such as CMG, which owns the rights to more than 300 famous faces, and Corbis, which is owned by Bill Gates, vie for the licensing rights of these dead icons, which are then sold to marketers to sell things like toys, watches, luggage and even automobiles.

The way I see it, who owns these licensing rights isn't really the point - families now in charge of the estates of their dead relatives have already shown just as much willingness to exploit their deceased in vulgar ways as those in the public domain. (Can anyone say Elvis toilet paper?)

What's troubling about the bill is the lack of debate about the concept itself: Exhuming the dead to hawk products these posthumous icons have never even heard of - and, in many cases, probably would have loathed - while at the same time having no say in the matter, their being, well, dead.

Of course, with the amazing advances being made in digital technology, we are in the infancy of this sort of exploitation. In my novel, "Exposure," I imagined a future where technology makes it possible not merely to introduce footage of old stars into commercials, but to actually animate them to the point where they can appear in the movies. They interact, even co-star, with contemporary movie stars, spouting newly written dialogue, bellying up to the bar and, in some cases, even jumping into bed with them.

If you think this is far-fetched, you might remember that it is already a decade since the image of John Wayne was inserted into that Coors beer commercial.

We live in an age where if you can imagine something, then it probably is already happening somewhere. And make no mistake, this will happen - there is too much money for it not to.

So, if one really believes that Rosa Parks wouldn't have minded being in that Chevrolet commercial, get ready for Lawrence Olivier in "American Pie 3," Spencer Tracy as a vivisectionist in "Saw: The Final Chapter" and Shirley Temple's new pornography career.

I realize now that my novel did not go nearly far enough. If I'd really wanted to take postmortem publicity to its natural conclusion, I would have imagined a future that included human cloning.

Knowing what we know now about our friends on K Street, perhaps 50 years from now we can undo this pesky cloning ban, and Greta Garbo or Marlon Brando's great-grandniece can get some DNA from an old scarf and resurrect her famous relative for commercial use. Greta and Marlon will walk among us again, their only price for living being their requirement to begin and end each sentence with the tag line, "Imodium A-D, that's for me!"

Hey, come on, it's all on the up and up, everything's legal. They were licensed by their relatives, protected by the laws of California.