Against Monopoly

defending the right to innovate

Right of Publicity

Monopoly corrupts. Absolute monopoly corrupts absolutely.

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A Criminal Use Of The 'Right Of Publicity'

This is rich. You remember John Dillinger? The famous Depression-era bank robber? More than 70-years after police shot him down in Chicago, his great-nephew is claiming that he is owed royalties for the use of Dillinger's name and likeness. All thanks to a misuse of an already ridiculous Indiana 'publicity' law.

[Jeffrey Scalf] says he has been ripped off by the author and publisher of a Dillinger biography, who refused to pay him licensing fees. He feels burned by restaurateurs who use the 1930s bank robber's name to hawk burgers and beer, and cheated by a California video-game company that used Dillinger's digital likeness in a game about gangsters.

And don't even get Scalf started on civic leaders and festival organizers who stage public events using the notorious thief's name and exploits -- but won't pay him to use the name. It's highway robbery, he says.

By day, Scalf is a marketing executive for the Indiana Pacers basketball team. At night, he is at his computer, searching the Internet for information about Dillinger -- and hunting down those who would either profit from or smear his memory.

... Since 2001, Scalf has filed lawsuits or threatened legal action against those who blame his great-uncle for the police officer's killing, including cafe owners, museum organizers, historical societies and rural township officials. He has demanded that anyone using the name sign a waiver promising not to portray the bandit as vicious or mean-spirited.

"John did some bad things. He lived a tragic life," says Scalf. "But he was no killer."

That claim has drawn ridicule from most historians, and those targeted by Scalf say he is the one exploiting Dillinger -- for his own profit and personal glory.

"This isn't about preserving history," says author Dary Matera, whose publisher tangled with Scalf over "John Dillinger: The Life and Death of America's First Celebrity Criminal." "It's about control and money."


An Indiana law, known as a postmortem right of publicity, allows Scalf and other descendants the right to charge for, or prevent the use of, Dillinger's name, likeness, voice or personality, says Amy Wright, Scalf's attorney. In Indiana, such rights last 100 years after a person's death and cover, among other things, the deceased's signature, photograph, distinctive appearance and mannerisms.

After Dillinger's death, Scalf's grandmother held a majority portion of the rights, according to Wright, until she handed them over to her grandson in 1997. (She died in 2001.)


[Scalf] sued a computer game company in San Francisco. (They settled.) He fought with a Dillinger-themed restaurant in Hudson, Ind. (Its owner also settled.) He challenged a group of community boosters hosting a Dillinger Days festival in downtown Mason City, Iowa. (The town renamed the festival.)


That Scalf has turned to the law as a weapon to defend the legacy of a notorious criminal doesn't seem strange to him.

"John would have appreciated the irony," Scalf says. "Just because he broke the law doesn't mean other people can."


"There's a market in this," [Scalf] says.

There is indeed a market in this. Which proves just how sickening the 'right of publicity' legal scam truly is.

Read the whole story here, if you can dare stomach it.

Compare this case to what the 8th Circuit has recently ruled regarding the 'right of publicity'. (And yes - I continue to insist on always putting the phrase 'right of publicity' in quotes since it remains an illegitimate legal concept in my eyes. Hopefully the Dillinger case illustrates why I feel as such.)

Oh, and by the way, another federal court has already ruled that the Indiana 'publicity' law only applies to personalities who died after the law was first enacted in 1994. John Dilinger missed the boat by 60 years in this case.


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