Sons Fight over Audrey Hepburn’s Gowns and Image

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jun 6, 2017

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The late movie star Audrey Hepburn was known for her beauty and glamour.

She was also known as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) from 1988 until she died in 1993.

In 1992, she received the highest civilian award in the United States — the Presidential Medal of freedom — for her work on behalf of children.

For years, as the Los Angeles Times reports, her sons hosted charity exhibits featuring Hepburn’s gowns, awards, and photos. They raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a children’s charity they established in her name after her death.

The Fund, based in Pasadena, California, has donated to more than a dozen children’s charities, including hospitals and an organization for former child solders.

Now, however, the brothers are embroiled in a dispute over whether the charity has the right to continue to use the items.

Sabotage?

The Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund filed suit against Sean Ferrer, Hepburn’s older son, accusing him of “sabotaging” exhibits planned for Australia and South Korea.

Ferrer allegedly asked the Fund for payments for the use of Hepburn’s photos.

Luca Dotti, Hepburn’s younger son, is now the chairman of the Fund’s board of directors.

Ferrer, now based in Italy, was chairman for 20 years but resigned from the Board in 2013. After his resignation, he send the Fund a letter claiming to terminate its right to use his late mother’s name, image, and likeness.

The Fund claims that Ferrer has no right to control the Fund’s use of this intellectual property.

Two years ago, Ferrer sued Dotti after they were unable to agree on how to divide their mother’s belongings. That case is still pending.

Earlier, around 2008 or 2009, according to the LA Times, Ferrer suffered a “financial crisis” and “began to meddle with the charity’s fundraising efforts,” including changing the password for its GoDaddy website and account.

The new lawsuit claims that Ferrer asked Hubert de Givenchy in 2015 to falsify and backdate a letter stating that he’d donated Hepburn’s gowns to her sons, rather than to the charity.

Hepburn was known for wearing Givenchy couture in seven of her movies, including “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Dead Celebrity Rights

At least 30 US states recognize a right of publicity for living people but far fewer states recognize that the dead have a publicity right that can be passed down to their heirs.

As I discussed in this recent blog, the Julia Child Foundation sued Airbnb for running a contest featuring the famous chef’s name and vacation home. In that case, the foundation wanted to avoid anyone making money from her famous name.

The estates of dead celebrities can also own trademarks related to them.

For example, as I blogged about, the estate of Marilyn Monroe owns trademarks for the words “Marilyn” and “Marilyn Monroe” and the image of her lip print.

Takeaway 

To avoid disputes like the one involving the Hepburn estate, it may be advisable for a celebrity to donate personal items directly to a charitable foundation, rather than counting on heirs to do the right thing.

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