This Blog was written by: Peter Meitanis
Here’s a question you never thought you would read in an estates blog: Where’s the unibrow?
Last month, Mattel, the maker of Barbie introduced a group of new dolls based on real-life figures to celebrate International Women’s Day. The collection features inspiring women past and present, including Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist famous for her self-portraits and works inspired by the nature and artifacts of Mexico.
Barbie’s “Inspiring Women” line includes dolls based on Amelia Earhart and mathematician Katherine Johnson, but it’s Frida’s doll that has caused the most controversy. Relatives of the Mexican artist threatened legal action to stop the sale of the doll, complaining that it was produced without permission and does not resemble the artist. The doll features eyes significantly lighter than Kahlo’s and space between her signature unibrow.
Mattel has publicly countered that is was granted permission with “a legally binding agreement to make a doll in the likeness of the great Frida Kahlo”. The agreement was with the Frida Kahlo Corporation, which owns the rights to the name and identity of the late artist. The company has been in a legal battle with Frida’s grandniece for years and sells merchandise featuring the artist’s likeness, including a prepaid Mastercard and bottles of tequila.
From Fred Astaire selling (and dancing with) vacuums to Audrey Hepburn eating chocolate (but not breakfast?), using deceased celebrities in advertisements is big business. Forbes even releases a list of the top earning dead celebrities on an annual basis. You’ll probably guess who was last year’s #1 on your first try.
Some important questions remain: Would Frida have approved being a Barbie girl in a Barbie world? Does it even matter? Dead celebrities can’t give their approval.
So what do you do if you’re a global superstar and don’t want your posthumous hologram performing at Coachella with Snoop Dogg? You could try a licensing prevention clause when planning your estate. You could even try setting strict criteria for how your likeness may be used. But then again, there are many jurisdictions that offer no protection for deceased celebrities being used in ads. Now that might raise some eyebrows.