Dying isn't so good for one's work ethic, but it doesn't stop the work from continuing to earn money. Copyrights last for 70 years after the death of the author, composer or artist. Patent royalties can be collected for up to 20 years, with or without the inventor's presence on Earth. And in California, individuals control the rights to their names, likenesses and voices for 70 years beyond their interment.
Courts originally recognized the latter, known as the right of publicity, as an extension of the right to privacy. The name and image of a celebrity had value, and that person deserved the chance to capitalize on it exclusively. That approach made sense, as long as the rights didn't trump free speech.
But problems emerged in 1985, when California lawmakers transformed the right into an asset that endured for decades after death. This year, courts in New York and California ruled that those who died before 1985 couldn't pass on their publicity rights to anyone but their spouse and children. For those who had neither, such as Marilyn Monroe, the rights were extinguished, and anyone would be free to make commercial use of their names and images.
State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who as a teen starred in the TV series "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," is steering a bill through the Legislature to overturn those court rulings. Under her proposal, the publicity rights of celebrities who died between 1937 and 1985 would fall to whomever the wills specified. If the rights weren't mentioned, they would go to the party that was bequeathed the remainder of the estate, except when a spouse or child had already been enforcing the rights successfully.
Proponents say the measure would prevent crass exploitation of long-dead celebrities, but it would merely give their beneficiaries control over how to exploit them. And in the case of those without heirs, such as Monroe, the shift in control would remove them from the public domain. Rather than giving those stars' beneficiaries a decades-long monopoly, lawmakers should leave them to compete for the benefits of lingering fame.