California legislature recently passed a California bill (ABA 585) that extends California’s post-mortem right of publicity to people who became famous because of their deaths. Effective January 2011, the bill amends section 3344.1 of the California Civil Code, which already provides a descendible post-mortem right of publicity to “personalities.” “Personalities” are currently defined as “any natural person whose name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness has commercial value at the time of his or her death.” The right extends for 70 years after the personality’s death. Currently, those people who are not “personalities” only have publicity rights during their lifetime. The new bill amends the definition of “personalities” to include those “whose name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness has commercial value… because of his or her death” [emphasis added].

The bill was sponsored by Assemblyman Paul Cook, a former Marine Corps member, and was drafted in response to the emergence of websites selling T-shirts and other merchandise that contain the names of American soldiers killed in the Iraq War. The bill is intended to prohibit the unauthorized use of the names and likenesses of deceased soldiers; however, it would apply to anyone (not just soldiers) who might obtain celebrity (or notoriety) because of their death, such as those involved in shocking crimes or those whose death brought wide media coverage.

Why This Matters:  In 2011, California will join the short list of states that provide post-mortem rights of publicity to soldiers or others who become famous because of their deaths (see also Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-3726 (2009), Fl. Stat. § 540.08 (2009); La. Rev. Stat. § 102.21 (2009), Okla. Stat. tit. 21, § 839.1A (2009); Tex. Prop. Code Ann. § 26.001 et. seq. (2009)).