Who owns an artist's legacy?
Digital media open the door to mash-ups, tributes, and other reinventions.
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While unregulated activities will "undoubtedly shed enough light on the original product," it will also be valued in the same way as the source material, and one day may even surpass it in recognition. Says Mr. Bukvic, the trend is a result of "the audience not wanting to be the audience anymore, but participants who can shape their experience."Skip to next paragraph
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This new reality is unsettling those in charge of protecting the way deceased artists are appreciated.
"They can try, but there's no controlling it," says Robert Thompson, a pop-culture expert at Syracuse University in New York. "In this age of digital media, which puts everything up for grabs, legacy does not mean only what is etched in stone by officially sanctioned memoirs and recordings, but what people do to interpret it."
Which means that from now on, when there's a legacy to be preserved – and profited from – estate holders will have to choose their battles.
This came into play recently with a new edition of Guitar Hero that depicts a virtual Kurt Cobain "performing songs" he did not write and never sang, which his former bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl said was "hard to watch." In a written statement, they said they "have no control" over his "name and likeness," which belong to estate owner Courtney Love. (Activision, which manufacturers Guitar Hero, said they received Ms. Love's permission, which she denies.)
"Once an artist is dead ... things get frozen and sacred in ways that maybe [they] weren't before," says Douglas Masters, a Chicago attorney charged with defending the intellectual property estates of Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali.
In the case of Presley, Mr. Masters says that although the estate is "willing to license pretty much anything ... there's still some sacred cows" that are off limits, such as alterations to Graceland, Presley's Memphis estate, or the use of unflattering images. The challenge, he says, is that it's much harder to stop unauthorized activity.
What is at stake in the Jackson case is the wealth of his holdings. Even with his family at war with the executors of his estate, Jackson's posthumous earning potential is starting to become evident. Since his death, business deals have fetched $100 million, almost double the amount his estate earned in 2008. Jackson's holdings not only include his song catalog but also a 50 percent stake in Sony/ATV. Sony is releasing a "new" Jackson single this month, as well as a documentary from his aborted tour.
His family is also battling concert promoter AEG Live, which is planning a two-year, three-city memorabilia exhibition starting later this month to accompany a film – all expected to earn his estate $6 million.
Ultimately, the more lasting tributes may come from fans, says Bukvic. "The key issue is engagement. It's a more genuine form of attention than the media could ever generate."