Jul 242012

Today would be the 115th birthday of Amelia Earhart, the pioneer female aviator. Google is celebrating with a Google Doodle, showing Ms. Earhart climbing onto a what appears to be a Lockheed Vega 5B (which is not the same as the famed two-engine Electra 10E in which she disappeared.)

Ms. Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe. The exact circumstances remain a mystery. At the request of her husband, she was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939, by a California court.

The reason why I looked up her official date of death was that I came across “the official Website” of Ms. Earhart. I put this in quotes because I found it odd that a person who disappeared 75 years ago can have an “official Website”, but then, what do I know? So I went and looked to see what the site was. While the site’s stated purpose is “to honor the life, the legend and the career of Amelia Earhart”, it is fairly evident that the real goal is to market the Earhart brand. Indeed, in the Site Purpose section, they warn would be users with stern language: “Any use of the name, image or likeness of Amelia Earhart , without the express written consent of the estate is strictly prohibited.”

Now I know precious little about personality rights in the United States, but I found this warning curious. Be it far from me to pick a fight with lawyers, but exactly who are these people doing the prohibiting, and on what grounds?

The site is marked “© Family of Amelia Earhart”, but the FAQ states that any e-mail sent through this site “goes to the webmaster of CMG Worldwide, the company that represents the name/image/likeness of Amelia Earhart”. So this is a full-fledged marketing operation. Nothing wrong with that (in fact, I appreciate their candor) but that still leaves my question unanswered: exactly what rights do they have to Ms. Earhart’s name?

Well, if Wikipedia can be believed: none. Had Ms. Earhart been domiciled in Indiana at the time of her death, her estate would hold the rights for another 27 years or so. But in California, the personality rights for a celebrity expire after 70 years. So to the best of my knowledge, Ms. Earhart’s likeness and indeed, anything related to her personality, are now in the public domain. (Not necessarily photographs. The copyright status of those may depend on when the photographer died.)

But then it occurred to me to check Ms. Earhart’s site using archive.org’s Wayback Machine. Unsurprisingly, the site has been in existence for many years. Although its visual style changed, much of the text remains the same, including text in the Site Purpose section. And back in 2003 (the date of the earliest version archived by the Wayback Machine) Ms. Earhart’s personality rights would still have been protected under California law.

Meanwhile, Ms. Earhart’s disappearance must remain a mystery for now. The latest expedition to locate her aircraft was called off as it ran into unexpected difficulties.

 Posted by at 9:01 am