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Lights, camera, legal action: Celebrities that sued companies for the unauthorized use of their image

Lights, camera, legal action: Celebrities that sued companies for the unauthorized use of their image

Back to the Future blazed the trail for movies about time travel, and continues to be referenced in popular culture. It was not the only piece of popular culture that tackled the possibilities of traveling backward and forward in time, but it stood out for its deft and creative approach on the subject. It was also, inadvertently, one of the first Hollywood movies that gave prominence to the discussion of publicity rights claims. And it wasn’t going to be the last.

So what went down in the Future? Let’s take a look at this blast from the past.

A tale of two McFlys

Like many successful movies, Back to the Future spawned a sequel (two, in fact), video games, a theme park ride...and a lawsuit. After making millions of dollars in the box office and winning several awards, a sequel was inevitable.

In the first film, the actor Crispin Glover played the pivotal role of George McFly, the father of the main character Marty McFly, so he was always going to be asked to reprise the role. However, he didn’t like the message of the sequel’s script. So unless the producers coughed up his asking salary (which was around $1 million), he wasn’t going to do it.

Instead of agreeing to pay what Mr. Glover wanted, the filmmakers decided to hire a Crispin Glover-lookalike. They also deployed a bunch of prosthetics, shot weird angles of scenes where the George McFly character appears, and spliced footage from the first film into the sequel.

Back to the Future II more than recouped its production budget and earned multiple awards, but Mr. Glover wasn’t going to let the filmmakers get away with the cinematic trickery at his expense.

So he filed a suit against Universal Pictures for violating his right of publicity, which the studio attempted to junk but failed. Mr. Glover’s attorney even succeeded in getting a deposition with the filmmakers.

The case was settled for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And the award for getting paid for a film project without starring in it goes to...Crispin Glover.

The cloning of Clooney and the robbery of Julia’s publicity rights

Like Mr. Glover, George Clooney and Julia Roberts sued certain companies for the unauthorized use of their name and image. No studio dared to duplicate Mr. Clooney’s image for a sequel to a film; ditto, Ms. Roberts. But a film equipment manufacturer and distributor used Mr. Clooney’s and Ms. Roberts’ images to sell projectors without the actors’ permission.

The stars sued filmmaking equipment companies Digital Projection, Inc. and Beyond Audio, Inc. for using their name and image to market film projectors and entertainment system products in advertisements. Per the actors’ joint lawsuit, the company used their publicity rights, privacy rights, and trademarks, among other things.

George Clooney and Julia Roberts have highly successful films under their belts. They’ve both starred in very successful movies that spawned sequels. But should they see their iconic images in unauthorized remakes (say, an Ocean’s 15 or a Prettier Woman), those film producers had better lawyer up.

The body double for the Divine Miss M

It's easy to imitate the voice and appearance of certain singers, and this is how some drag performers and tribute bands make a living. What’s not easy — and unacceptable — is to steal an artist’s identity.

In 1988, the Ford Motor Company thought of a brilliant idea for a ’70s nostalgia-themed commercial. The carmaker’s marketing creatives had one particular singer in mind: Bette Midler.

The problem was, Ms. Midler wouldn’t agree to it. Instead of going back to the old drawing board or going in a different direction and getting other ’70s singers, the company hired one of Ms. Midler’s backup singers to perform like her for the ad.

The ad worked so well that according to Ms. Midler, even her family and friends thought it was her in the ad. The multi-hyphenated entertainer sued the car manufacturer for the unlawful use of her image and voice.

Perhaps this could have all been avoided if someone at Ford had sat down with the executives and asked them: “How would you feel if a rogue car manufacturer copied your cars’ design and build?”

Then again, maybe they still would have run with it. But really, they could have just hired a Cher impersonator, of which there were — and are — thousands.

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