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If You Win an Oscar, Is It Really Yours?

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on February 23, 2015 3:50 PM

Well, maybe you personally didn't win an Oscar on Sunday night, but plenty of people did. And as it turns out, there are some limits on what you can do with that shiny gold figurine.

As The Hollywood Reporter noted in December, even though the Oscar statuette belongs to you, there are some contractual limits on what you can do with it and to whom, if anyone, you can sell it.

Statue for Sale

Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences filed a lawsuit against Carol Surtees after she allegedly auctioned off her deceased father-in-law's Oscar on eBay. Robert Surtees won the award in 1953 for excellence in black-and-white cinematography, and the statuette reportedly went for $40,500 on the online auction site.

In order to prevent just this type of black market for Oscar statuettes, the Academy has a "right of first refusal" on any award for sale, with the buy-back price at $10. (Or perhaps $1, according to a different THR article.)

According to the Film Academy, it sent a letter to Surtees a week before the auction and spoke to her on the telephone that day, but the auction went through anyway. The Academy is seeking at least the auction price in damages, along with an order that the award itself be placed in a trust.

Litigious, for a Little Guy

Although the statuette stands less than 14 inches tall, the Academy has not been shy about enforcing right of refusal. It also sued a man in 2012 for selling a long-disappeared statuette on eBay, and sued Mary Pickford's heirs in 2007 for selling her Oscar. As a whole, the Academy is very aggressive in protecting its brand.

And the Award Goes To...

So who actually owns the statute, and can the Academy really buy back any award for a fraction of its market value? As it turns out, these kinds of option contracts are fairly common and often enforced. (Oakley even tied one to its endorsement deal with golfer Rory McIlroy.)

While it remains to be seen what will happen in the case of Mrs. Surtees, it's likely the auction purchasers will have to relinquish the Oscar. As for all of last night's award winners? They'd do well to remember that just because they have possession of the statuette now, it doesn't mean they can dispose of it as they wish.

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