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Who Owns the Rights to a Dead Celebrity's Hologram?

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By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on December 07, 2015 12:02 PM

Technology has not quite conquered death yet. But we can resurrect great artists who are gone using holographic projections. In other words, the dead can put on a show.

In 2012, when Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg performed at the Coachella music festival with the deceased Tupac Shakur, the notion of touring ghosts was a shocking novelty. This year, plans were announced for the deceased singer Selena to tour using technology, raising a slew of legal questions about these illusions.

Rights of the Deceased Celebrity

When the Selena estate announced its intention to tour a hologram, there was international outcry from fans who claimed the estate was abusing its rights. In fact, an estate that owns the rights may license them.

It's also not always necessary. Intellectual property attorney Mitchell Schuster told Fortune that the law concerning a musician's digital representation after death is complicated. He explains that during a celebrity's lifetimes most states protect against the unauthorized commercial use of their right of publicity. However, after death, the answer varies state to state.

"California now recognizes a celebrity's postmortem right of publicity and in contrast, New York does not," says Schuster. "New York has historically treated celebrity personality rights in a manner similar to a person's right of privacy, which usually expires upon the person's death."

Owning the Dead

Currently there are two major companies vying for the top spot in holographic performances by musicians of the past, according to Rolling Stone. They purchase and license rights of deceased performers.

For example, Hologram USA owns the "resurrection" rights to Patsy Cline and Buddy Holly and many others. The company is embroiled in a patent suit with Pulse, the other technological entertainment titan, which refers to its performers as "digital humans.' Pulse has plans for a 90-minute Elvis performance that will be "a story of Broadway authenticity, with all of the scale of Las Vegas."

A Key Question

One key question remains to be answered when it comes to holographic performances. Will people respond? It is one thing to surprise audiences with a digital Whitney Houston doing a single nostalgic number at an awards show and another altogether to sell tickets to a show starring a ghost and futuristic illusions.

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