Celebrities who were superstars in life are often bigger moneymakers in death, their estates raking in huge revenues from posthumous sales of their music, memorabilia, or commercial use of their image. One need look no further than the lucrative afterlife of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.
Professional sports icons are no different. Heavyweight boxing legend Muhammad Ali has been gone for over a year now, but his name and image are still worth big bucks to advertisers. Now the company he formed during his lifetime to manage the commercial use of his persona is suing Fox Broadcasting Co. for $30 million for unauthorized use of the late champion’s identity in a pre-Super Bowl promotional ad in February 2017.
Muhammad Ali Enterprises LLC (MAE) filed the complaint Oct. 10 in federal district court in Illinois, charging that Fox used Ali’s name and likeness as the centerpiece of its three-minute promotional spot. The ad depicts Ali along with living NFL legends including Joe Montana and Joe Namath and makes repeated reference to Ali’s “The Greatest” title.
According to the complaint, the video begins with a narrator saying, “Walk with me as I confront greatness” while the viewer sees the back of a boxer representing Ali and wearing a robe that says “The Greatest. The Lip.” The viewer sees actual film footage of Ali and hears Ali shouting, “I am the Greatest!” The narrator again says, “Walk with me. I can show you what it means to be the greatest.”
The video goes on to feature well-known clips from Ali’s life including his lighting of the Olympic torch in 1996 (“repeatedly defining “greatness” with examples Ali set in his life”), concluding with a screen that shows Ali’s name and the years of his birth and death.
The 2017 Super Bowl reportedly reached a nationwide audience of over 111 million viewers.
The lawsuit charges that the ad falsely implies to consumers that Ali and MAE endorse or sponsor Fox Broadcasting and infringes Ali’s publicity rights. “Fox never requested or received MAE’s permission to use Ali’s identity or to imply his endorsement in connection with the services offered by Fox, including its broadcast of the Super Bowl,” the complaint states.
Laws governing the “right of publicity” evolved in the 20th century, mostly through case law, to address the growing incidence of commercial misappropriation of the images and identities of well-known figures, usually in the adverting of consumer products. Probably the best-known recent such case in Illinois was basketball star Michael Jordan’s successful lawsuit against Dominick’s grocery chain. The publicity right is one that prominent individuals don’t lose after death but that is usually assumed by their estates.
According to MAE’s complaint, the company carefully discriminates among the products and services with which it chooses to associate Ali’s image, favoring “high-quality businesses,” and therefore maintaining the high value associated with such an endorsement.
The $30-million demand for damages is based on the going rate for a three-minute Super Bowl television commercial, the lawsuit states.
MAE brought the complaint for false or misleading representation under Section 43(a) of the federal Lanham Act of 1946, as well as Illinois’s Right of Publicity Act.
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