Nelson Mandela aims to halt exploitation of his celebrity cachet

In an era of salacious celebrity trials, keeping a good name is no easy task, even for a global icon like Nelson Mandela.

Earlier this week, the former South African leader's lawyers filed suit against his longtime confidant Ismail Ayob, and a local businessman, alleging they made millions by selling copies of paintings by Mr. Mandela without his permission and with counterfeit computer-generated signatures.

"You can 'Kennedyize' Mandela. You can have institutions, art centers, airports and call them Mandela. But don't 'Disneyize' him with T-shirts, caps, gold coins, and the like," says Don MacRobert, a copyright lawyer who works to guard his name.

The story of betrayal and greed has made headlines here for weeks. But Mandela's representatives say it's part of a larger image-control problem for one of the world's most beloved figures, a man who symbolizes the victorious struggle over South Africa's apartheid regime. Like pop stars, heroes today must hire lawyers to protect their name.

The 86-year-old, who is officially retired, is not the only icon who has had to fight to keep others from profiting from their good names. The family of Martin Luther King, Jr. succeeded in stopping the sale of plastic busts of the assassinated civil rights leader.

Princess Diana's estate was less successful, though, in halting the proliferation of unauthorized paraphernalia, in part because the courts said she did little to control her image during her life. Even the Catholic Church may have to deal with this issue after Pope John Paul II's death.

"There is a strong human desire to identify with famous people and what they stand for. They want to wear T-shirts and see things that have their identity," says J. Thomas McCarthy, a professor of law at the University of San Francisco and an intellectual property expert. "It's a search for heroes, I suppose."

Some celebrities have experienced a backlash after using the law to stop unauthorized use of their identities. Arnold Schwarzenegger found himself on the wrong side of public opinion when he tried to stop an Ohio company from selling dolls depicting him with a weapon.

But in South Africa, public opinion has been firmly on Mandela's side, in part because the current case involving Mandela's art may involve outright fraud as well as mere profiteering.

Legal tactics

In the United States, many states have laws, known as "right to publicity" laws, that allow people to control the commercial use of their identity. South Africa has no such law, but MacRobert and other lawyers are working to use laws designed to protect corporate brands to protect Mandela's name. The current suit is a civil case, although future criminal charges have not been ruled out.

"Mr. Mandela is very proud of his reputation of having strict values," says George Bizos, the famed human rights lawyer who is now working on the case against Mr. Ayob. "The thing that concerns Mr. Mandela mostly is that they sell these things at exorbitant prices with the representation that the money goes to his children's fund."

While the Ayob case may be the most extreme attempt to profit from Mandela's reputation, Mr. MacRobert battles daily to keep unscrupulous people from misusing the Mandela name.

He helped to shut down a website, nelsonmandelafoundation.com, which was affiliated with a bank in Cyprus that claimed to be soliciting donations on the former president's behalf. He's locked horns with Nelson Mandela Fine Art, a company that wanted to import gold coins bearing Mandela's image. And he challenged a woman in the Netherlands who registered Nelson Mandela as a trademark, and then claimed she was using a holy Sanskrit name and not that of South Africa's first black president.

MacRobert says they are in the process of securing trademarks on his name, as well as his clan name Madiba - a common nickname in South Africa for Mandela, - his African name Rolihlahla, and his prison number 46664.

The words "Nelson Mandela" and an image of him have also been registered through the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, which requires member states to give recognition to and enforce registered trademarks.

Art fraud?

Although Mr. Mandela initially endorsed the art project, called Touch of Mandela, to raise money for his South African-based charities, Ayob and Cape Town businessman Ross Calder are accused of continuing to sell copies of the artwork after he withdrew his support and stopped signing images.

The paintings, many of which depict Mandela's years in prison on Robben Island, have been distributed globally and many have been bought by international celebrities like Oprah Winfrey.

Mr. Bizos wants Calder and Ayob to account for all the paintings sold and to return the money to his foundations, which do AIDS, poverty, and children's work in South Africa.

Calder and Ayob deny wrongdoing and say the scandal is simply a mix-up that has been overblown by the local media. Speaking last Sunday for the first time since the scandal broke, to a local newspaper, Calder denied any wrongdoing and said he could account for all of the money, most of which had gone to the Mandela Trust, which includes two of Mandela's daughters as trustees.

"He was assured that his values would be observed during the production and marketing of these works and to his disappointment he found out that was not happening," says Bizos. "Mr. Mandela is very disappointed."

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