Heirs of the Three Stooges will get profits from posthumous depictions of Moe, Larry and Curly, thanks to the Supreme Court.
The high court rejected without comment an appeal by artist Gary Saderup, who made a charcoal drawing of the Three Stooges, known for their head-slapping, eye-poking brand of comedy, and then reproduced it as lithographs and silk-screened images on T-shirts, making $75,000 in profits.
The court thus bypassed a chance to give First Amendment protection to photographers and artists who specialize in celebrities.
Saderup also lost in the California Supreme Court, which ruled last spring that he violated a state law by not getting consent before putting a picture of the slapstick comedians on shirts and lithographs.
Now Saderup must pay the $75,000 he made from the products to the heirs and cover their legal fees.
Saderup's attorney, Stephen R. Barnett, in urging justices to accept the appeal, said the California ruling "offends not only the proverb that 'one picture is worth a thousand words,' but also the First Amendment's prohibition on legal monopolies over facts."
The heirs' attorney, Robert N. Benjamin, said the artist was trying to "twist the facts and the law in an attempt to make a constitutional issue where none exists."
California is one of 17 states that give heirs some right to control publicity. In that state, heirs have rights to the likeness, names, voices, signatures and photographs for 70 years after the death.
The Three Stooges began on the vaudeville stage in 1923, then moved on to feature films and shorts. Jerome (Curly) Howard died in 1952, and Larry Fine and Moe Howard died in 1975, court records show. Shemp Howard, Joe Besser and Curly Joe DiRita took Jerome Howard's place in some later ensembles.
Fine, Moe Howard and DeRita formed a management company in 1959 that owns rights the Three Stooges. That company is now controlled by some of the actors' heirs.
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