The Importance of Research: Post-Mortem Publishing Rights

Written by A Guest Author

By Ted Parrish

As a writer for decades now, I have been recently confronted and perplexed with a legal issue worthy of extensive research. Not doing so could have resulted in a legal lawsuit for liability, which I prefer not to get into, so it was time well invested. This issue is post-mortem publishing rights.

My current novel, a romantic comedy in progress, takes place in Miami, Florida, in 1965-1972, where I lived during that time. The famous comedian and celebrity, Jackie Gleason, moved his TV show and crew from New York to Miami Beach during this era, and opened his own theater. Mr. Gleason was an avid golfer, and in 1972, opened his own sponsored country club and golf course, called Inverarry, in Lauderhill, Fla.

The main character in my novel, Mr. Bernard Goldberg, owned three restaurants, two in Miami, and one in New York. Mr. and Mrs. Gleason patronized one of these in Miami, and they had a casual conversation. Later, they had another conversation on the golf course.

Even though there were no foul words, or anything that would be considered defamation of character, did I have the legal right to publish Mr. Gleason’s dialogue as first person? Could I be held liable and sued for using his name without authorization?

Authorization from whom, exactly? He died in Florida in 1987, and his wife and two daughters have also passed away. Researching with online legal websites, I discovered that it’s up to individual state laws regarding privacy rights, and they could differ widely. 

Some state laws proclaim that the First Amendment in our Constitutional Bill of Rights is interpreted as our right to use any celebrity’s name, as long as it was not defamation of character. So, that prompted me to research Florida statutes on post-mortem publishing rights, which stated that the deceased celebrity maintained his/her individual privacy rights until forty years after their death.

Finally, the answer I was searching for, but was Florida State the appropriate state to search? Mr. Gleason was born in New York, and lived most of his life there, so was the New York state law applicable, or Florida?

The answer was Florida. The state in which the person died reserves the rights and jurisdiction over individual privacy rights. Research revealed that authorization from the person’s heirs was required by statute before printing for profit, or any other reason, like movies, etc.

So, my next search was for the heirs of Mr. Gleason, yet another mystery and challenge. Since Mr. Gleason died only thirty-three years ago, I obviously needed authorization from his remaining family heirs, and I followed his family tree, resulting in a dead end street.

Frustrated and stubborn individual that I am, I finally came up with a name, Mr. Jason Patric, a contemporary Hollywood actor, who is a nephew of Mr. Gleason. My request to use Jackie Gleason’s name in my novel is now on the way to Mr. Patric’s publicity agent in California.

Needless to say, I anxiously await a reply. If it’s returned refused, my only alternative is to change his name to a fictitious character. I also had to request authorization from Mr. Trini Lopez, a popular musician and actor, now in his eighties, and living in Palm Springs, California. He was a golfer as well, and often joined Mr. Gleason on the course. He was also a first person character in my novel.

This scenario likely occurs rarely among the writers’ community, but if you find yourself up to your neck in this legal issue, now you know. Do your research! It’s time well invested.

 

 

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