Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Jimi Hendrix merchandise sales shows two risks all creators face when basing characters on real people

Yes, I'll admit it, that title is a horrible and tortured pun. You should never have to experience anything like it again. (Okay, I'll stop.) But one seller of Jimi Hendrix merchandise had an experience in Washington State that teaches two valuable lessons to creators of content using the name, image, or likeness of real people.

(Okay, I promise, I'll really stop now.)

Experience Hendrix is one of two companies formed by the estate of Jimi Hendrix to exploit the rights to his name, image, and likeness through a series of trademarks the company has registered on certain images of Hendrix, his name, and his signature. They use these marks for basically every Jimi Hendrix product you've ever seen: their business is prolific and quite profitable. But of course as with all famous brands Experience Hendrix isn't the only entity trying to profit from Jimi Hendrix. Andrew Pitsicalis owns or has licenses to several works of art either created by Hendrix or showing him in them, and through various websites (including HendrixLicensing.com) he would sell copies of these works of art, onto which he had placed Hendrix's name, signature, and/or headshot.

Experience Hendrix sued Pitiscalis for state and federal trademark infringement, and Pitsicalis countersued seeking a declaration that Washington's right of publicity statute (which gives Experience Hendrix the right to be the only one to benefit from Hendrix's right of publicity even after death) was unconstitutional. At trial the judge held that the Washington right of publicity statute was unconstitutional. Each side appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.