Over the years, the estate of Bruce Lee, organized under the corporate name of Bruce Lee Enterprises, LLC (“BLE”), has endeavored to protect the Bruce Lee brand by filing various lawsuits throughout the world. BLE’s latest lawsuit seeks $30 million from the Chinese-based restaurant chain, Kungfu Catering Management (“KCM”), for its alleged violation of Bruce Lee’s right of publicity. KCM has questioned the timing of the lawsuit given that it has been using Bruce Lee’s image in its marketing for over 15 years. Because the right of publicity is relatively new in China and there is not a long history of case law, it will be interesting to see how this case is ultimately resolved.
What does the right of publicity protect?
The Right of Publicity
In the United States, the right of publicity is codified by state statute and/or arises under common law that has been interpreted through case law. In general, the right of publicity protects an individual against a third-party using her/his name, image and/or likeness for commercial gain. One key disparity among the various state laws is whether the right of publicity survives death and can be transferred to the estate of the deceased person. Most states allow for the right of publicity to survive, but two states, New York and Wisconsin, do not recognize a postmortem right of publicity. Determining what state has jurisdiction over the deceased is generally recognized as the state that the deceased was domiciled in at the time of her/his death. Some states do have broad right of publicity statutes that afford protection to non-domiciliaries. Bruce Lee died in Hong Kong, just six days before the release of the movie Enter the Dragon. Two years before his death, he and his family had moved to Hong Kong from California. Whether Bruce Lee was domiciled in Hong Kong or California at the time of his death will be an issue that will be argued and determined at trial.
Obtaining Appropriate Licenses
Generally, businesses that seek to exploit the name, image and/or likeness of someone for commercial use should reach out to that person or, where deceased, her/his estate, and request a license to do so. If businesses do not receive consent to use an individual’s name and likeness and still choose to proceed with use, they are opening the door for the possibility of expensive litigation (especially when it comes to dead celebrities whose estates make considerable amounts of money from branding arrangements). With respect to Bruce Lee, BLE has a webpage dedicated to licensing, which details how it can be contacted for purposes of entering into a licensing agreement.
Finally, it bears mentioning that claims of trademark infringement, copyright infringement, and/or defamation are often included in right of publicity lawsuits.