Preserving a Famous Face

California's Assembly Appropriations Committee has unanimously voted in favor of legislation that will treat celebrities' images as copyrighted property. SB 209, nicknamed "the Astaire Bill," was passed 30-1 by the state's Senate on April 5, and will now move to the full Assembly for a final vote.

Co-sponsored by the Screen Actors Guild and by Robyn Astaire, the widow of dancer/actor Fred Astaire, and shepherded by Senate president pro tempore John Burton, the bill seeks to protect the heirs of deceased celebrities from "unauthorized commercial exploitation" of the celebrities' images or likenesses. The Committee's decision to push forward with legislation is a "victory for the heirs of SAG members and other Californians whose images have significant commercial value," according to SAG president Richard Masur. SAG has 96,000 members.

The bill includes provisions for recovering damages for anyone whose relative's image is commercially exploited in California. It extends the period of protection after a celebrity's death from 50 to 70 years, which would bring California law into line with the recent extension of the federal Copyright Act from 50 to 70 years. Mark Lee, an intellectual property attorney, called the bill "a significant improvement over current law."

The legislation is facing likely approval by the Assembly, despite the opposition of major film studios, television networks, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the American Civil Liberties Union, who have all taken the position that it would interfere with artistic freedom. The MPAA has since rescinded its opposition. After the committee's vote, MPAA president Jack Valenti wrote to Masur, "We are eager to work with you in an attempt to arrive at some mutually agreeable policies that address the use of deceased personalities in newly produced audiovisual works."

The bill is the outcome of a 1997 lawsuit brought by Robyn Astaire against Best Film & Video Corporation because of the company's use of her husband's image in commercials. "The stakes for all parties could be huge," wrote Ben Fritz of Variety, "since advances in digital technology may soon allow dead celebrities to 'perform' as if they were in their prime."