Robin Williams' brand protection – tax efficient way to protect publicity rights in the afterlife

7 April 2015

Robin Williams was an outstanding actor and comedian who broke new ground with his characters and films. News of his suicide in August 2014 shocked the world and, eight months after his death, he is still making headlines as detail of the Robin Williams Trust emerges. In addition, there is an on-going dispute between his widow and three adult children about which items they are each entitled to receive from his estate.

Williams adopted an innovative approach to his publicity rights and the way in which his estate will be taxed. This advantageous tax efficient approach will most likely become popular with famous people in the future.

Publicity Rights

The value of a famous person is not just restricted to the amount of revenue their films, music or business generates. There is value in the famous person’s unique brand, such as their name, image, voice, photographs and signature. Companies have utilised CGI and VFX technology to use famous people in adverts and films long after they have passed away. For example, Marilyn Monroe was in an advert for Dior perfume and Paul Walker was digitally recreated to complete Fast and Furious 7 when he died after filming only half of the film.

Before his death, Williams took steps to protect his publicity rights for 25 years after his death. He signed a deed transferring his publicity rights to the Windfall Foundation, which is a charitable organisation that raises money for good causes, such as Make a Wish. This means that only the Windfall Foundation is entitled to exploit Williams’ image etc. and if his brand is used by somebody else without consent then this will constitute unauthorised usage.

Tax Implications

By transferring his publicity rights to a charity, Williams separated the value of these rights from the value of his estate. The Robin Williams Trust provides that if the Windfall Foundation is ineligible for a charitable deduction by the Internal Revenue Code (similar to the UK’s inheritance tax regime for charitable donations), the publicity rights can be transferred to another charity or charities with a similar aim.

Michael Jackson passed away in June 2009, but nearly six years later there is still an on-going dispute between the Michael Jackson Estate and the Inland Revenue Service over the value of Jackson’s image and likeness. Williams’ innovative approach is a reminder that such disputes can be avoided after death and that people can have control over how their brand is used after their death.

Dispute Following Death

Williams is survived by his widow and three adult children from a previous marriage. The Robin Williams Trust provides that his children should receive his memorabilia, awards and other particular personal items. The dispute has arisen as his widow claims that items in the home she shared with Williams should not be given to the children. There is also a strong possibility that if the parties are unable to settle this out of court, a judge will have to clarify the definition of ‘memorabilia’. This dispute is a reminder that trusts and wills should be clearly written so that arguments over definitions of items can be avoided.

Kingsley Napley specialises in providing advice about contentious probate matters and drafting agreements to protect one’s reputation and image rights during life and after death.

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