Legally Speaking: Deceased actors, legal issues for future movies

March 12, 2017 GMT

Actress Carrie Fisher, who played the role of Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies, died suddenly in December 2016. However, because of the expanding technology of computer-generated images (CGI) in movies, it is possible there could still be some future appearance by Princess Leia.

The ninth installment of the Star Wars series, due for release in 2018 or 2019, had been planned with Ms. Fisher’s Princess Leia character in a key role. Shortly after Ms. Fisher’s death, filmmakers were reportedly negotiating with her heirs for the rights to use her image at least in some limited way in a future film.

Long ago and (not) far away, when I was in law school, I was taught that a deceased person and their heirs could not control use of the deceased person’s likeness for commercial purposes after the person’s death. So-called personality rights died with the individual. This issue came to the fore in the late 1970s over the use of Bela Lugosi’s likeness as Dracula in advertisements. The California Supreme Court held that Bela Lugosi’s personality rights could not pass to his heirs.

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In response to the Lugosi case, a California statute was passed in 1985, which requires filmmakers and others in that state to obtain permission from a celebrity’s estate to use his or her image after death. The law applies to persons who are or were residents of that state. Other states such as Tennessee have followed suit with similar laws. Minnesota is now considering such legislation following the death of the musician Prince, who was from Minneapolis.

Ms. Fisher was a resident of California. The right to control use of a deceased person’s image is a state law-based right. There is not a federal statute on the point. However, in order to effectively produce a film using a celebrity from California, the filmmaker would need to obtain the legal rights under California statute in order to universally release the film for viewing.

Aside from the legal issues involved, the technical issues involved in making such film footage are significant. My sources inform me that the CGI process is currently very labor intensive and very expensive. However, even considering the cost, the filmmakers may ultimately decide to include an appearance by Princess Leia in a future film if only to address the conclusion of her story.