Dead Celebrities and the Constitution

The law has long treated the images of living persons as something like trademarks, so that the use of such images without the consent of those persons is restricted in various ways. Over the last few decades, there have been efforts — some successful — to turn these images into property of a sort that may legally be bequeathed upon death, as opposed to such images lapsing into the public domain.

The potential monetary rewards increased simply as celebrity became more culturally important. And the evolution of CGI has made it possible to fabricate the appearance of persons in video, not only increasing opportunities to make money from such images but to use those images in ways that many of us would see as grossly abusive (for example, in pornography).

Reflexively, quite a few people want law at a Federal level to protect the images of the dead. But there is some reasonable question as to whether the US Constitution empowers the Federal government to act.

The rub comes by way of Article I §8, which enumerates the powers of Congress. It specifically empowers Congress

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

As I've explained, this enumeration did not creäte copyrights; it instead gave Congress limited power to protect them; without that empowerment, the matter would simply have been left in the hands of common law and of the legislation of the constituent states. But neither §8 nor any other part of the unamended Constitution makes explicit mention of intellectual property of any other sort, and it is an unreasonable stretch to suggest that there is implicit reference to similar such property, exactly because there had been a felt need for explicit mention of the rights of authors and of inventors. Any prerogative to protect the images of the dead was left in the hands of the constituent states.

I used the word unamended advisedly, because one might try to make a case that the Fourteenth Amendment empowers the Congress to treat personal images as continuing to be property beyond personal death. But one can legitimately make that claim only if somehow the associated rights are basic rights of persons (or of US citizens as such) or can be shown to derive from basic rights; the Fourteenth Amendment doesn't empower Congress to reconfigure legal rights ad libitum.

There's a wide-spread propensity to confuse great desirability with moral necessity. But the penalties of law are always ultimately acts of violence, and there's a need for more than emotional appeal when the law forbids something. So, while it would be greatly desirable for the images of the celebrated dead to be treated with something like the respect that they would have received when alive, a solid case should be made for regarding them as property, or indeed they should be regarded as not property.

Some efforts to make personal images into property that remains such beyond the death of the persons have focussed on getting constituent states to have it treated as such in law. It's perhaps worth noting that the Fourteenth Amendment might be read to block the constituent states from converting these images to property (though I am sure that no court to-day would accept that reading).

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