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Massachusetts Senate Passes 'Right Of Publicity' For The Dead

A mug commemorating Elvis Presley. The Presley estate has rights to his image for eternity. (Aayesha Siddiqui/WBUR)

A mug commemorating Elvis Presley. The Presley estate has rights to his image for eternity. (Aayesha Siddiqui/WBUR)

Thirteen states have laws that allow the posthumous transfer of a person’s identity to their heirs or to the firms that represent them. These laws grant celebrities a so-called “Right of Publicity” after they die that bars companies from using their identities to sell products.

On Thursday, the state Senate passed a bill — pushed by Massachusetts residents Bill Cosby, the famous actor and comedian, and his wife Camille — that would make Massachusetts one of the states that gives people a legal form of privacy that extends even into death.

Guest

Ray Madoff, professor at Boston College Law School and author of “Immortality and the Law: The Rising Power of the American Dead.” She tweets at @raymadoff.

Highlights

On how our rights change after death: 
State senator Stan Rosenberg: “We have very strong protections for people during their lifetimes, but upon their deaths, what was not allowed the day before they die is allowed the day after they die. And that, to me, seems rather unfair, that people should be able to profit off the lifetime of work, the characters, the voice, the likeness—everything that belonged to that celebrity.”

Ray Madoff: “There’s all sorts of things—for example, voting—that you can only do when you’re living. No matter how committed you are, you can’t leave aside a vote to be cast after your death. We also have protections for people’s reputation while they’re living. We have a right to privacy, we have protections against libel and slander…and all of those exist while you’re living, and then the moment of your death, they’re gone. So the law does draw a distinction between the living and the dead, and that’s because it’s trying to balance lots of interests.”

On whether the right to publicity after death protects the reputation of the deceased:
RM: “What the right of publicity protects is the right to control the commercial exploitation of a person’s name and image.  What it doesn’t protect is if I want to write a book that says direct lies about somebody. …Because there’s no claim for libel or slander or a right to privacy after death. His most private letters could be disclosed. And I think J.D. Salinger, if he’s looking on from beyond, is seeing how things that were very private while he was alive are now being made much more public after death.”

More

Boston Magazine: Celebs Could Soon Have Post-Mortem ‘Personality’ Protections

  • “A ‘personality’ is defined in the bill as anyone whose identity has commercial value, and could be used to promote sales of goods, products, and services. The proposal would protect a person’s identity, who’s covered under the language outlined in the bill, for up to 70 years after the date of their death.”

MassLive: At Urging Of Bill Cosby, Massachusetts Senate OKs Celebrity Protection Bill

  • “Comedian and Massachusetts resident Bill Cosby has asked state lawmakers to approve the legislation. Other states have similar laws. A personality can be any kind of a performer or celebrity, but is defined in the bill as ‘an individual whose identity has commercial value.'”

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