Representing the Dead

by M-Gillies

Though dead for more than 50 years, the families of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe continue to earn dividends on their star power.

“My name is Mark Roesler. For three decades I have represented some of the greatest individuals of the last century. If there is one thing I have learnt, it is that legends never die.” − Mark Roesler, CEO and Worldwide Chairman of CMG Brands

Their names are iconic, their legacy undisputed, their fame, wealth and lifestyle envied by many and followed by all. They paint the covers of the magazines at the grocery stores and fill the screens of our televisions. Their body of work lines our shelves and often our walls. They are musicians, film stars, models, sports icons, entrepreneurial innovators and historical savants. They are celebrities and as the American comedian Fred Allen once said, “A telescope will magnify a star a thousand times, but a good press agent can do even better.”

In the day and age where image is everything and a reputation can take years to build and one pitfall to end, the careers of celebrities are always hanging in the balance on a dental floss tight rope. However, while the careers of high profile celebrities are at best in a constant flux, there is one group of iconic figures who are often overlooked, despite cementing their legends in pop culture and being instantly recognizable. They are post-mortem celebrities and similarly like high profile celebrities, they too require representation when it comes to protecting their rights of publicity.

For over a quarter century, there has been one company which stands as the driving force in establishing and ensuring that the brand a celebrity creates for themselves remains their sole property, even after their deaths − a concept that hadn’t been formally acknowledged by state laws in the early nineteenth century when celebrity fame was just beginning.

“Before we started working in this area,” CMG Worldwide chairman and CEO, Mark Roesler said. “Deceased celebrities or their estates had no rights to their name or image.”

In fact, faces like Oscar Wilde (d. 1900), Amelia Earhart (d. 1937), Jean Harlow (d. 1937), Lou Gehrig (d. 1941), James Dean (d. 1955), Marilyn Monroe (d. 1962) and many others saw their individual name, portrait and likeness free for the public domain to do with their images what they liked.

Despite New York passing a Civil Law in 1903 which made the unauthorized use of a living individual’s name, portrait and picture a misdemeanour, heirs of deceased celebrities were denied compensation. Even the right to profit off their name was buried with these memorable figures − simply enough, there were no such laws which protected the rights of the deceased… that was until Roesler came along.

Like the lone western gunslinger blazing a trail over the sunsetting horizon, Roesler began his entrepreneurial journey in 1974, when he formed his own business as a means to pay his way through college.

“Growing up,” Roesler said in an issue of Beverly Hills Lifestyle magazine. “I wanted to be a successful businessman. When I was in college and law school, and getting my MBA, I owned a roofing business. I planned on going into the roofing business upon graduation.”

However, something changed all that. It was after studying at DePauw University and working his way to the Indiana University School of Law and Graduate School of Business that an opportunity soon presented itself to Roesler. He had just  earned a joint Juris Doctorate and Master of Business Administration degrees in 1981, when he was recruited to perform intellectual copyright work on the Norman Rockwell estate. It was after this experience that the future of continuing a roofing business was placed on the back burner.

Signing on with Curtis Publishing to protect the artwork of Rockwell after his death in 1978, Roesler was asked to continue working for the estate. In doing so, he formed a new company − one which would focus on managing the estates of deceased celebrities. That’s when he became selected as the licensing agent for his first client, the Elvis Presley estate.

With Presley’s former agent, Colonel Parker in litigation, Roesler began work on discovering a way to protect the intellectual property of a person like King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. With Graceland having just opened, there was a high-demand for Presley merchandise and being a young lawyer, Roesler soon found himself caught with dilemma that needed to be addressed.

Like Presley, he soon realized that James Dean had a similar appeal and also similar issues − it was the difficulty of protecting his intellectual property. With the families of deceased celebrities facing numerous obstacles in protecting the legacy of their loved ones, Roesler determined it would require legal defence to safeguard the names and likeness of post-mortem celebrities.

Through the birth of CMG Worldwide, Roesler took on the two iconic celebrities and quickly went to work in ensuring the families maintained intellectual property rights of their legacy. But this soon saw trouble come over the horizon when after eight years Warner Brothers sued the family of James Dean, CMG and Roesler personally for what they considered to be a breach in the RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization) Act for $90 million.

It was 1991, and it was plastered on the front page of all the papers. From The Wall Street Journal to USA Today, Roesler learned that he was being sued for wire fraud and mail fraud with Time Warner having every intention of fully pursing the matter with no possibility for settlement.

This was to be the trial of the century for Roesler and for the stake of CMG. With Warner Brothers who had an unlimited budget for the cause, Roesler was spending $250,000 a month in legal fees, which included 14 attorneys, including himself and his legal staff. If he lost the battle, it would ultimately mean the end of CMG.

After 13 months, the case went to trial.

To understand the position that Warner Brothers had, they claimed ownership of the lucrative merchandising and endorsement rights to Dean based on the fact that Dean had signed a standard SAG (Screen Actors Guild) contract. However, during the 30s, 40s and 50s it was never stated who rightfully retained the intellectual property rights.

To determine this, the judge sought clarification on Warner Brothers stance. If Dean signed a SAG contract, then went out for a family picnic and had his picture taken, did this mean that Warner Brothers owned those photos because they used the intellectual property rights of Dean?

“Absolutely,” Warner Brothers had said. “We own everything.”

This left Roesler and CMG in a predicament. If the judge ruled that the family owned family photos while Warner Brothers owned photos of Dean from movies that made him famous, CMG would have nothing to market.

During the two week trial, Roesler and his team presented the court with arguments in favor of the family of the deceased as rightful owners of Dean’s intellectual rights. With each issue that was brought up, the team won each implication, with the judge ruling that Warner Brothers had no rights by virtue of their SAG contract and further revoked  their rights to use any Dean image outside from promoting  their movies.

While they had succeeded in winning the court case, Roesler and his team turned around and sued Warner Brothers for $100 million for malicious prosecution, which was settled for a significant amount of money.

It was after this landmark case within the entertainment industry that it was clearly indicated that studios owned none of those intellectual property rights. With such a success, CMG was suddenly propelled into the spotlight as more than just a little Indiana company.

“Shortly thereafter we opened up an LA office,” Roesler said.

Having succeeded against Warner Brothers, the battles didn’t end there.

In 1993, Roesler represented the widow of Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz in a legal battle between director Spike Lee, who had just completed filming an unauthorized biographical production of the cultural figure. Through this case, it was established that Shabazz controlled the rights to the X used in association with her husband, thus granting her a licensing fee for the merchandise and apparel produced to promote the movie.

With continuous success in providing estates with Intellectual Property Strategies, Infringement & Enforcement Services, Domain Recovery & Internet Issues, and Consultation & Negotiation Services, along with the instatement of Indiana’s Right of Publicity Statute in 1994, Roesler and CMG Worldwide quickly earned the state of Indiana a title of being the most progressive and celebrity friendly state worldwide.

With Indiana’s Right of Publicity legislation, it became the model for states looking to enact or amend Right of Publicity legislation, including California, Illinois, Washington and Ohio.

As the company began increasing its profile and taking on more celebrities, so came the decision to utilize the brands that these celebrities had created. With CMG representing over 300 of the world’s most sought after and recognizable celebrities and the continuous growth of the digital age Roesler said, “It used to be where media stories were fed to us. The information age has changed everything. It’s interactive now, so to speak.

“Maybe in the early 80s, you discovered James Dean and got a book or two and became a fan. Now, you can understand all aspects of his life, instantly access his movies, go to his website, join a fan club, interact on social networking sites and share the experience with other James Dean fans. Has the internet changed things? It’s changed everything.”

“Social Media is the global leader of purchase intent,” said Cara McMains, Public Relations Director for CMG Worldwide. “By increasing our clients’ presence on these sites we are enhancing their careers and legacy by creating a worldwide referral program.”

Through the use of social media, CMG has created a means of preserving the legacy of iconic celebrities  while the families of the deceased stars can continue to gain economic benefits, in order to carry on the legacy for all those fans.

While stars like Monroe, Dean and Presley have worldwide recognition long after their deaths, McMains indicates that the legendary pinup model, Bettie Page, who died in 2008, is well on her way to generating a similar iconic status.

According to Forbes, Bettie Page Clothing in Hollywood and Las Vegas; clothes inspired by the model and B movie star are selling so well that they have helped her estate earn $6 million in royalties during 2011. While Page has seen numerous revivals throughout the years, MTV said, “Katy Perry’s rocker bangs and throwback skimpy jumpers; Madonna’s Sex Book and fascination with bondage gear; Rihanna’s obsession with all things leather, lace and second-skin binding; Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction; The SuicideGirls website; The Pussycat Dolls; The entire career of Marilyn Manson’s ex-wife Dita Von Teese” would never have been possible without the revolutionary impact of Page.

So while celebrities may come and go; their rise to fame sometimes fading into obscurity as they are replaced by newer generations of celebrity, the legacy they built, the legend they leave behind will not be one that is easily forgotten. Through CMG Worldwide celebrities have found their legacies re-introduced to a new generation, time and time again.

“These celebrities have withstood the test of time. James Dean has been deceased for 55 years, Marilyn for 48 years. I started representing James Dean a generation ago. Are future generations even going to remember who James Dean was? I remember representing him 25 years after his death, and now it’s 55 years after his death and there’s no let up in sight,” Roesler said. “Wherever you are in the world, when you think of Hollywood, the images that come to mind are James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.

“Is Hollywood going to be important a generation from now? The answer is clearly yes. As long as Hollywood is important, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are important.”

Currently, Roesler has teamed up with New York Times best-selling author Robert Shook to write a book about the experiences Roesler has gained from representing over 1000 of the world’s most iconic legends − and while the book is still in the preliminary stages, McMains has stated that there will be a chapter devoted to how Roesler obtained Dean as a client, further saying that the book “will be excellent for anyone interested in learning more about the protection and marketing of celebrities, and their estates.”

Read more:

The Official Site of Mark Roesler

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