The music world has been buzzing ever since the surprise appearance of Tupac Shakur — well, that is, a digitally-created 3-D image of Tupac — on stage to rap at the Coachella music festival in California. Some have described this as creepy, like seeing a ghost. Is this going to be a new trend for celebrity estates? Should it be?
First, there is the issue of legality. Was it legal for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg to bring Tupac’s image on stage? Because this was a use of Tupac’s image and likeness for commercial purposes, only the holder of the “right of publicity” for Tupac could authorize it. That right is owned by Tupac’s estate, under the control of the executor — his mother, Afeni Shakur.
Reportedly, she not only authorized it, but was thrilled with the outcome. Dr. Dre repaid the estate for this permission with a contribution to the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation, which is Tupac’s charity.
Dr. Dre has already said he’d love to bring out other dead celebrities to perform with him, like Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye. Michael Jackson’s brothers are planning a reunion tour next year, and hope to have a holographic version of the King of Pop join the tour. And we certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see Whitney Houston’s estate take advantage of what could be a new trend in celebrity estates, based on the reports of how much debt her estate has. Celebrity estates could profit handsomely by allowing the use of holographic images, given how much excitement Tupac’s appearance generated.
Who’s next? Elvis? Marilyn Monroe? Maybe Amy Winehouse? They all rank highly on Trial & Heirs‘ list of top Twitter accounts of deceased celebrities. So their estates are already putting words into their mouths through social media, mostly to promote commercial endeavors and raise money for the estates. It’s certainly not a stretch to envision holographic performances next.
The Michael Jackson estate will be an interesting one to keep an eye on. Unlike many other celebrity musicians who passed away, his estate is controlled not by his family, but by professionals. The Ray Charles estate is another example. Both have featured court fights between the family and those in charge. With those estates, the executors — not the family members — have the right to agree to a holographic performance, whether the family members like it or not.
It’s no easy task to balance the desire to profit from a late musician’s image, and the concern of crossing the line into exploiting that image in ways that would leave the performer spinning in his grave. Even family members can often disagree over this line. For example, the Bob Marley estate has seen lots of fighting over this very issue, including a recent lawsuit by the estate, controlled by Marley’s mother, suing one of his half-brothers. That case involves the right to sell Mama Marley fish products and use the Marley name in connection with a popular music festival. The Jimi Hendrix estate faced similar court fights between half-siblings, one of which involved “Electric Hendrix Vodka.”
In the future, these types of disputes will take on heightened significance if a holographic image of a long-lost celebrity is involved. Should the ability to profit outweigh the harm that comes with commercial exploitation of what is essentially a ghost? As this New York Times Op-Ed piece eloquently put it:
[T]he reanimated dead are never the people they were before. Oh, they sing the same, and rap the same, and have the same distinctive tattoos and hand gestures. But they don’t have the complexity, or the humanity, to really compel our interest. They’re ghosts — ghosts in a new machine, perhaps — but at best they are no more than the shadow of the shadows that they cast upon us, back when they were alive.
Pale imitation of the original or not, holographic performances will surely generate profits from devoted fans who miss their fallen idol. There will always be legions of devoted followers who would gladly pay to see even a lesser version perform again. As long as the executor in charge gives the green light, this is all perfectly legal.
But, is it right? What would Tupac have thought about this?
This is something to think about for many of us. Even when you’re not famous, and don’t have to worry about whether or not your estate will allow a hologram of you to perform, you have a name and reputation that will live on after you’re gone. For business owners, there is the added concern of your reputation being properly managed through your business after you pass away.
Who do you want to control your legacy after you pass? Do you want that person to treat your heirs honorably, as you would have liked? Do you want your business to be managed in a way that would make you proud?
These are legitimate concerns that many people don’t stop and think about when doing their estate planning. Creating a will or trust is more than simply deciding who gets what. Choosing the right person to manage your estate, trust or business after you die is critical, both for your loved ones and often for your own reputation. Putting the right person in charge can make all the difference between tainting your legacy, and having your wishes and goals followed the way you want.
By Danielle and Andy Mayoras, co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, husband-and-wife legacy expert attorneys, and hosts of the national television special, Trial & Heirs: Protect Your Family Fortune! For the latest celebrity and high-profile cases, with tips to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your clients, click here to subscribe to The Trial & Heirs Update. You can “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.