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This article was first published 16 years ago  » Business » Top-earning dead celebrities

Top-earning dead celebrities

By Lea Goldman and Jake Paine,
Last updated on: November 02, 2007 11:41 IST
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The 13 legends in our seventh annual list of the Top-Earning Dead Celebrities grossed a combined $232 million in the past 12 months. Many are instantly recognizable one-name wonders (Elvis, Marilyn, Warhol) who still command attention worldwide, making them a marketer's ideal pitchman.

Indeed, all the members of this year's club are the lynchpins of enormously profitable--and growing--merchandising empires. Albert Einstein's name is used to peddle Baby Einstein DVDs. Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel's books are a staple of every kiddie library on the planet. Hundreds of performances of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown pad the portfolio of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz each year--as well as comic strips that are still syndicated daily in thousands of newspapers worldwide.

But even in death, there can only be one King. Reclaiming his top spot on the list is Elvis Presley, whose estate generated $49 million in the past year. CKX Entertainment, the publicly traded firm which presides over the bulk of the Elvis empire (daughter Lisa Marie Presley retains a 15 per cent stake) announced a massive overhaul of Graceland this summer, marking the 30th anniversary of the The King's death. Among the changes are a new hotel convention center, a state-of-the-art multimedia museum and a new, spiffier visitor's center.

The plans are already paying off: Revenues from Graceland were up 15 per cent this year, to $35 million. And that doesn't include royalties generated from Elvis music, DVDs and licensing deals like the one struck with Cirque du Soleil for an Elvis-themed revue in Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, the brightest star of 2006 doesn't even appear on this year's list. Kurt Cobain, former frontman of grunge band Nirvana, debuted on the list in first place last year after his widow, Courtney Love, sold part of his song catalog for a reported $50 million. But while the deal opened the door for future ad dollars, Cobain's 2007 earnings weren't enough for him to stay on the list.

John Lennon jumps from the No. 4 spot last year to second place this year, with earnings estimated at $44 million. In February, the Beatles settled a 15-year battle with Apple Inc. over the company's decision to get into the music business. (The Beatles' commercial interests are overseen by a firm called Apple Corps.) Two months later, the band settled another long-standing dispute with its record label EMI over alleged unpaid royalties. The settlements, which are believed to have exceeded $100 million, also buoyed the income of the other deceased Beatle, George Harrison, who placed No. 4 on this year's list, with earnings estimated at $22 million. 

Now that Apple and the Beatles have settled their differences, stock market analysts are hungrily awaiting an announcement from Apple Chief Steve Jobs regarding the covetable Beatles archive being made available for download from Apple's iTunes Music Store. In late August, shares of Apple jumped nearly 6 per cent on rumors that an announcement was forthcoming. (No such announcement has been made yet.) ITunes already sells the Fab Four's solo works.

Earnings for our top dead celebrities were evaluated for the period between October 2006 and October 2007. That ruled out recently departed superstars like Luciano Pavoratti, who passed away in September. The bulk of his earnings during our time frame, we determined, were made while he was living.

Newcomers to the Dead Celebrities list include "King of Cool" Steve McQueen ($6 million) and the "Godfather of Soul" James Brown ($5 million). Rapper Tupac Shakur rejoins the list with $9 million--he debuted back in 2002, before falling off--following the sale of catalog rights in May for upward of $5 million. Over a decade after his unsolved 1996 murder in a drive-by shooting, Tupac remains a hot commercial property. Said to be in development are a Tupac biopic, videogame and--gasp!--Broadway show.

Estimating income for celebrities is no small feat. But for dead celebrities, it can prove daunting. Such was the case when attempting to value the income of recently departed mega-producer Aaron Spelling, whose estate still collects royalties for every Love Boat or Melrose Place rerun that airs anywhere on the planet.

While royalties have long been a staple source of income for the Top-Earning Dead Celebrities, who collects them has now become a hotly debated issue in the entertainment community.

Anna Strasberg, widow of famed acting coach Lee Strasberg, inherited the bulk of the Marilyn Monroe estate from her late husband. Two years ago, she sued two photo agencies run by heirs of Monroe photographers for licensing images without her permission. (One, Sam Shaw, shot the iconic picture of Monroe over a subway grate for The Seven Year Itch.) Strasberg claimed that the images were part of Monroe's intellectual property and therefore only her heirs should profit.

But in May, both a California and New York court ruled against her, claiming that the concept of a post-mortem right of publicity did not exist until legislation to that effect passed in 1984, so Monroe could not have bequeathed them at the time of her death. (That law, dubbed The Dead Celebrities Act, grants posthumous rights for 70 years.) Those decisions pave the way for other firms to license Monroe images without cooperation from her estate. 

That has made celebrities who died before 1984 fair game for licensing deals without the permission of their heirs. In early October, California passed a bill that effectively overrides the recent court decisions and grants posthumous publicity rights to celebrities who died pre-1984 to their heirs.  It's still unclear what the net effect of the legislation will be on the disputed Monroe images.

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