Elvis Presley International Memorial Foundation v. Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation
733 S.W.2d 89 (1987)

  • EPIMF and EPMF were both nonprofit corporations dedicated to selling Elvis paraphernalia. EPMF sued EPIMF for unfair competition, to prevent it from using the name “Elvis Presley.”
    • Elvis Presley’s estate argued that they had given the right for EPMF to use the name and had not given the right to EPIMF.
    • EPIMF argued that Elvis Presley’s image entered the public domain after his death, so they didn’t need anyone’s permission to use it.
    • EPMF argued that Elvis Presley’s name and image are descendible.
      • Descendible means that the property (here the right to use his likeness) is inherited by his heirs after death.
      • The right to control one’s likeness is called a right of publicity.
  • The Trial Court found for EPMF. EPIMF appealed.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed.
    • The Appellate Court found that, under Tennessee law, a person’s right of publicity is descendible property.
    • The Court recognized that a celebrity’s right to publicity can be possessed, used, subject to a contract, sold, or assigned. It is unquestionably an intangible personal property with economic value.
    • The Court suggested many reasons for why the right to publicity is descendible:
      • If it’s a property right in life it must be a property right in death.
      • Otherwise it would allow “one man to reap what another has sown.”
      • A celebrity operates with the expectation that he is leaving a valuable asset for his heirs.
      • The value of contacts to use a celebrity’s likeness would lose value if their likeness entered the public domain upon death.
      • It prevents manufacturers from deceptively claiming a dead celebrity endorsed their product.
  • The concept of the right of publicity is a relatively recent offshoot of the right to privacy.
    • See Zacchini v. Scripts-Howard Broadcasting Co. (433 U.S. 562 (1977)).