|Lugosi v. Universal Pictures|
|Decided December 3, 1979|
|Full case name||Bela George Lugosi, et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants v. Universal Pictures, Defendants and Appellants.|
|Citation(s)||603 P.2d 425|
|Personality rights are personal to the holder and must be exercised within the holder's lifetime; they do not descend to the holder's heirs.|
|Chief Justice||Rose Elizabeth Bird|
|Associate Justices||Matthew Tobriner, Stanley Mosk, William P. Clark, Jr., Wiley Manuel, Frank K. Richardson, Frank C. Newman|
|Dissent||Bird , joined by Manuel, Tobriner|
|California Celebrities Rights Act|
Lugosi v. Universal Pictures, 603 P.2d 425 (Cal. 1979), was a decision of the Supreme Court of California with regard to the personality rights of celebrities, particularly addressing whether these rights descended to the celebrities' heirs. The suit was brought by the heirs of Béla Lugosi, his son Bela Jr. and his fifth wife Hope Lugosi, who jointly sued Universal Pictures in 1966 for using his personality rights without the heirs' permission on toys, posters, model kits and the like. The trial court initially ruled in favor of the Lugosi heirs, but Universal Studios won the case in an appeal. The court determined that a dead person had no right to their likeness, and any rights that existed did not pass to their heirs.
In September 1930, Béla Lugosi and Universal Pictures had entered into an agreement for the production of the film Dracula in which Lugosi played the title role under a signed contract. Hope Linninger Lugosi, his widow, and Bela George Lugosi, his son, filed a complaint against Universal on February 3, 1966, alleging that they were the heirs of Béla Lugosi and that Universal had, commencing in 1960, appropriated and continued to appropriate property which they had inherited from Lugosi and which was not part of the agreement with Universal. The Lugosis asserted that from 1960 until the present time, Universal entered into many licensing agreements which authorized the licensees to use the Count Dracula character.
[Lugosi heirs] seek to recover the profits made by [Universal Studios] in its licensing of the use of the Count Dracula character to commercial firms and to enjoin [Universal Studios] from making any additional grants, without [their] consent .... The action, therefore, raises the question of whether Béla Lugosi had granted to [Universal] in his contracts with [Universal] merchandising rights in his movie portrayal of Count Dracula, the nature of such rights, and whether any such rights, if retained by Béla Lugosi, descended to the [Lugosi heirs] ....
After eleven years of litigation, the trial judge ruled in favor of the Lugosi heirs, awarded them $70,000, and barred Universal Studios from merchandising Lugosi's likeness. The decision was appealed and the California Supreme Court ruled that "the right to exploit one's name and likeness is personal to the artist and must be exercised, if at all, by him during his lifetime." The result was a loss for the concept of inheriting personality rights in California.
The California Celebrities Rights Act of 1986 created an inheritable right to a person's name or likeness for 70 years after death. Legislation passed in 2007 extended that right retroactively to all persons who have died since January 1, 1938.
In this decision preceding (and precipitating) the Legislature's enactment of Section 990, the California Supreme Court held that rights of publicity were not descendible in California. Béla Lugosi's heirs, Hope Linninger Lugosi and Bela George Lugosi, sued to enjoin and recover profits from Universal Pictures for licensing Lugosi's name and image on merchandise reprising Lugosi's title role in the 1930 film, "Dracula." The California Supreme Court faced the question whether Béla Lugosi's film contracts with Universal included a grant of merchandising rights in his portrayal of Count Dracula, and the descendibility of any such rights. Adopting the opinion of Justice Roth for the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, the court held that the right to exploit one's name and likeness is personal to the artist and must be exercised, if at all, by him during his lifetime. Lugosi, 603 P.2d at 431.
Ten years later, the son and the widow of Béla Lugosi, star of the Dracula films, tried to take this doctrine a step further. They argued that this right was essentially property and therefore should pass on to heirs. In a California suit, they asked the courts to stop Universal Pictures from merchandising 70 Dracula products, ranging from jigsaw puzzles to belt buckles, and sought compensation based on the profits. Citing the First Amendment, Universal replied that the design of merchandise is a form of free speech that should not be restrained by anyone's heirs. Besides, said Universal's lawyer, Robert Wilson, Lugosi "attained fame and fortune because the company made and distributed the movies he starred in." After eleven years of wrangling, a trial judge decided in favor of the Lugosis, giving them $70,000 and barring Universal from merchandising Lugosi's likeness. ... In December the California Supreme Court reversed the Lugosi decision.