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Can you use the image of dead celebrities for business ads?

On Behalf of | Aug 19, 2022 | Intellectual Property |

Imagine this, you’re walking down the street when you pass a Marilyn Monroe print posing in modern designer shoes. A few blocks down Elvis Presley is singing and dancing in a cleaning advertisement. Just around the corner, a Dr. Seuss cutout sits in the window of a bookstore with a recent New York Times bestselling book. 

After seeing so many deceased celebrities, you’re either thinking the dead have come back alive or businesses are using celebrity images to promote their business – you may be surprised to find it’s the latter. But, if these people are dead, how can others use their image to attract customers? Here’s what you should know:

Celebrity estates often control their likenesses

The internet is chock full of images of celebrities (dead and alive). A quick google search could net you hundreds of pictures of anyone you want – with just a click and you could save and use these images however you please. Any image, however, is protected with copyrights that limit how others use them.

Copyright protection protects intellectual property (IP) from being copied, distributed and sold by anyone except the original creator or content holder. In other words, most images online can’t be used for just any reason and often need permission from the creator or owner. 

But what about the images of the deceased? In most cases, celebrities have the right to decide how their image is used in advertising – and their estate controls those rights after they die.

Using the image of a celebrity to advertise your business may infringe on someone’s intellectual property rights, even if the celebrity is long gone. Ideally, you should seek legal guidance before you make the kind of advertising mistake that costs your company more than it gains.