Friday, February 7, 2014
Under California law, a celebrity’s right of publicity is descendible after they are deceased, and a 2008 amendment specifically states that the law is retroactive. Wilma Wyatt Crosby was the first wife of the famous entertainer Bing Crosby, and they had four sons together. After Wilma died on November 1, 1952, Bing remarried Kathryn Crosby and remained married to her until his death on October 14, 1977. Wilma’s will left all of her community property to her sons through a trust. Bing’s will left his estate to Kathryn. In 1996, Wilma’s trust sued the company in charge of managing Bing’s interest, and settled for $1.5 million and agreed to release all claims to community property interests. After the 2008 amendment added a retroactive clause for publicity rights, Wilma’s estate sued the company again, and the trial court granted Wilma’s estate the interest. The company and Kathryn Crosby appealed.
In Crosby v. HLC Properties, a California appeals court reversed the trial court and found that Wilma’s estate was barred from their claims by res judicata. The court reasoned that the trial court erred by only relying on the amendment, and not looking at the original statute. Since the original statute also recognized publicity rights of previously deceased individuals, the right to publicity was available at the time of the 1996 settlement, and Wilma’s estate could not bring the claim again. Thus, the court treated the amendment as a clarification of the original statute rather than as adding a new property right.
See C.A. Tosses Ruling in Favor of Estate of Bing Crosby's First Wife, Metropolitan News-Enterprise, Jan. 30, 2014.
Special thanks to Brian Cohan (Attorney at Law, Law Offices of Brian J. Cohan, P.C.) for bringing this article to my attention.