Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Dead as Characters in Fiction: Shoeless Joe, J.D. Salinger, and J.R.R. Tolkien

On January 25 of this year, lawyers for the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien sent a cease and desist letter to author Steve Hillard claiming that his novel Mirkwood violates the Estate's right of publicity in Tolkien's persona because (among other reasons) Hillard depicts Tolkien as a character in his book. The Estate cited Texas and Kentucky as examples of jurisdictions with statutes that extend the right of publicity to the dead.  Hillard responded by filing a preemptive lawsuit in federal court in Austin, Texas, seeking a declaration that his novel does not violate the Estate's rights.  Hillard's filing cites several good examples of recent novels by well-regarded writers that made prominent use of dead celebrities as characters, including Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, featuring Marilyn Monroe as a character, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, featuring Virginia Woolf, and Underworld by Don DeLillo, featuring Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and J. Edgar Hoover, among others.  Early articles concerning the Mirkwood dispute appear herehere, and here.

I gather that the Estate may have other gripes about the allegedly "Tolkien-like" cover and the appearance of Tolkien's name in the subhead "A Novel About JRR Tolkien."  But it's not my purpose here to express a view on the merits of this particular lawsuit.  Instead, I'd like to voice my disaffection for the entire concept of a post-mortem right of publicity.

Briefly stated, the right of publicity prohibits the use of an individual's name or likeness (and, in some places, other elements of one's persona, such as one's voice, signature, etc.) in advertising or for "purposes of trade."  ( offers a good background discussion on the right; this good online whitepaper from the Kenyon & Kenyon law firm discusses the right in certain non-U.S. jurisdictions.)

There has been a lot of debate over the years about what falls within the ambit of "purposes of trade."  And there have been a fair number of lawsuits contending that "purposes of trade" include depicting an individual, without his consent (or the consent of his heirs), in a work of fiction, such as a novel or movie.  After all (the plaintiffs argue), the writer or producer is expecting to make money from the fictional work.  On the other hand, thankfully, many right of publicity statutes and court decisions explicitly recognize that there is a strong countervailing First Amendment interest in not curtailing all use of individuals' names in expressive works.

There has been a spate of recent right of publicity cases involving the use of real people in fictional works. (See this article from the American Bar Association summarizing recent developments.)  When brought on behalf of living individuals, most cases, like this one involving the television series CSI recently dismissed by an appeals court in California, tend to be yoked with a claim for libel, on the theory that not only does the plaintiff have a property right in his persona, but he has been falsely and disparagingly portrayed in the fictional work. (This raises the separate but related question of libel in fiction, which is the subject of this earlier post.)  However, when libel is not a factor, i.e., when the only claim is one based upon the right of publicity, in most cases -- but unfortunately not all -- the fiction writers have prevailed.  Still, there is no denying that this can be an unpredictable area of the law, as illustrated by the Tony Twist case.

But what about a right of publicity for the dead?  Remember, you can't libel the dead in the United States.  I, for one, see no compelling social benefit in bestowing a new property right on the heirs of dead celebrities, particularly when it is has too often been mischievously used by the living in an effort to suppress creative works, which are (and should be) entitled to robust protection under the First Amendment.  And yet approximately 19 states now recognize a post-mortem right of publicity.  (The laws, I might add, are entirely inconsistent with each other; some according protection for as few as 10 years after death, while Indiana and Oklahoma purport to extend protection for the astonishing term of 100 years!)

Back in the 1980s, I read the great baseball novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella.  The title character is the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was, of course, one of the greatest hitters of all time and the most famous member of the Chicago White Sox team (or the Black Sox, as they have come to be called) that fixed the 1919 World Series.  The book also features a central character by the name of J.D. Salinger.

If you haven't read the book, you may know the story from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, which is closely based on Kinsella's novel.  When I saw the movie, I was immediately struck by the fact that J.D. Salinger had vanished from the story and had been replaced by a totally fictional character named Terrence Mann.  I had a work-related reason to learn more about the reason for this dramatic change in the dramatis personae.  So I called around and finally managed to locate W.P. Kinsella, who was living at the time in White Rock, British Columbia, writing more novels.  (I must say he was uncommonly cordial and gracious to a young lawyer calling him completely out of the blue.)  I asked him:  "What happened to J.D. Salinger?"  He told me that the lawyers had said that Salinger, who in 1989 was still very much alive, had to be cut out of the movie version of Shoeless Joe.  The lawyers were worried that Salinger (who had recently pursued a highly publicized lawsuit to block publication of an unauthorized biography that quoted from his unpublished letters) might try to block the release of the movie as a violation of his right of publicity.  The lawyers decided they couldn't take that chance.

(By the way, as far as I know, Salinger and his lawyers never threatened legal action in connection with Field of Dreams; the Hollywood lawyers simply feared he might.  I could be wrong about that.  If anyone knows for sure, please post a comment or send me a message.)

In 1989, New York State Legislature was considering a bill that would have extended the "right of publicity" to the dead.  If the law had passed, the heirs of dead celebrities could sue if their illustrious ancestors' names were used in advertising for "purposes of trade," just as living celebrities could sue under New York law -- then and now.  I was asked to participate in a panel discussion with one of the sponsors of the New York legislation.  And the reason I had tracked down W.P. Kinsella was to support one of the points I wanted to make:
Shoeless Joe Jackson died in 1961.  If New York enacts a statute recognizing a descendible right for publicity for up to a half century after death, I'm afraid that lawyers will be telling the W.P. Kinsellas of this world that not only do you have to cut J.D. Salinger out of Shoeless Joe, but you have to cut Shoeless Joe out of Shoeless Joe.
Well, New York didn't enact a post-mortem right of publicity statute in 1989.  But the legislators are still trying, and a similar bill was introduced for legislative consideration in 2010 and now has now been introduced again in 2011. At the same time, there is a movement afoot to enact a federal right of publicity statute that would include post-mortem  protection.

This is an active, controversial, and (by the low standard of lawyers) interesting area of the law, and my opinion as to the imprudence of a descendible right of publicity may be in the minority is, of course, just that -- one person's opinion.  The fact of the matter is that a post-mortem right of publicity is the law in many states.  Writers should be aware that (as long as they don't falsely imply that their works are authorized or endorsed by the heirs of a dead celebrity) they have a strong argument that the depiction of the dead in works of fiction is protected by the First Amendment. Again, think of Oates, DeLillo, Cunningham -- and Kinsella.  The statutes and the case law generally attempt to distinguish between conventionally commercial uses of a celebrity's name and likeness (such as use of images on tee-shirts) and more expressive, transformative uses (such as, one hopes, use in novels and films).  But the scope of the post-mortem right of publicity is none-too-clear, and celebrities' estates may be well-funded, aggressive, and lawyered-up. It's a grey area, and it may make sense to seek out legal advice before launching on a major project. Like Steve Hillard, you could conceivably end up with a fight on your hands.  If you do, it would be cheerful to have the support of an established publishing house.

Hilliard doesn't.  He self-published his novel.  About 900 copies had been sold prior to the filing of the lawsuit.

Postscript:  The right of publicity is not the only arrow in the quiver of those who would seek to prevent the use of real people, living or dead, as characters in fictional works.  Here, from lawyer Mark Litwak, is a good summary of the various legal theories that have been invoked, with greater or lesser success.  See also this summary from UK attorney David Crocker comparing UK and US law on the descendible right of publicity.  Finally, you might be interested in this account from The Hollywood Reporter of a federal judge recently holding the Washington State right of publicity statute unconstitutional in part.

Update:  Writer Diana Stevan's comment reminded me that I should have mentioned the lawsuit recently filed against Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help.  The plaintiff is a sixty year-old woman, who once worked as a maid for one of Stockett's relatives; she claims that she was used as the model for one of the principal characters in the book.  As is typical of such cases involving living plaintiffs, the complaint alleges a hodgepodge of legal theories, including violation of the right of publicity, false light invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  Here is an article by Laura Miller of Salon about the case. A copy of the complaint is here on the Jackson Jambalaya blog. And here is a good discussion Susan Cushman and lawyer John Mason on Jane Friedman's Writer's Digest blog.

See Diana's fine blog at


  1. Very interesting post. At some point, two corporations/entities are going to end up going head-to-head over such "rights" and then I think the world grinds to halt. Or else explodes. Not sure which.

  2. It would be impossible not to be envious of the court reporters in proceedings like this. It would be like reading entertainment page on a newspaper when documenting or court reporting miami.

  3. Thanks (again) for this article - I've shared it when it came out and with the recent (supposed] publication of a novel getting Ian Fleming & Tolkien together in one book this will stay interesting for many decades to come ;)