‘Elvis Police’ Track Impersonators, Collect Royalties for Singer’s Estate
No Elvis Presley postcard, coffee mug or bespangled impersonator escapes the attention of the “Elvis police.” They expect a cut whenever money is made on the late singer’s name or image.
“If you’re going to use Elvis for a commercial purpose, you’ve got to deal with us,” said Barry Ward, lawyer for Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc.
Presley’s estate is managed on behalf of his heir, daughter Lisa Marie, 24. A trust agreement will allow her to take personal control of the Elvis business in 1998 if she wants.
For 10 years, Ward and his colleagues have been tightening their legal hold on the use of Presley’s name or likeness. Presley’s estate now grosses about $15 million a year, though he has been dead almost 15 years.
His Memphis residence, Graceland, opened to tourists since 1982, draws 650,000 visitors annually. It supports an 11-acre complex of souvenir shops and museums.
On his desk, Ward keeps “the book,” a black, loose-leaf binder containing court rulings. He pats it affectionately from time to time.
No Elvis venture is too small to trigger Ward’s interest. He runs weekly computer checks to see what’s on the market and relies on a large network of the faithful who are on the lookout for Presley knock-offs.
If you see an Elvis look-alike on TV, the estate had a part in the affair. Buy a copy of Presley’s will from a small-time entrepreneur and the estate wants to know about it.
Got an old photo of Elvis? It’s yours to do with as you please, but don’t make copies and try to sell them.
Ward recently shut down one venture peddling copies of Presley’s will, although it is a public record open to anyone who cares to visit the Shelby County Probate Court for a look.
Looking is one thing. Selling is another.
“What are you using to sell that will? You’re using Elvis’s name, and that belongs to his daughter,” Ward says.
His favorite entries in “the book” are a Chancery Court ruling from Nashville and a 1987 decision of the Tennessee Court of Appeals. The rulings say the publicity rights to Presley’s name were inherited by Lisa Marie. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled in her favor, drawing on the decisions of the Tennessee courts.
The estate also defeated in court a woman who claimed to be Presley’s illegitimate daughter and a British trinket vendor who trying to import T-shirts with the legend: “Not licensed by Graceland.”
Presley’s longtime manager, Tom Parker, kept only loose control over the souvenir trade. After Presley died in 1977, the bootleggers went into high gear.
“It took us a while to turn that around,” Ward said.
As late as 1980, the drain was brisk on what is now considered the estate’s rightful due.
The 6th Circuit decided then, in absence of a state court direction, that the rights to Presley’s name died with him.
The estate turned to lobbying the Tennessee General Assembly for changes in state inheritance laws, and later convinced the Nashville court that their arguments were sound: Elvis’ likeness was inheritable.
Now, a letter from Ward is generally all it takes to stop an unlicensed trafficker in Elvis memorabilia.
“Our position is, ‘We can fight if you choose to fight, and we’ll win. Here’s the track record, but we can make you a better deal,’ ” Ward said.
And deal is the operative word.
The estate has licensed 20 agents to make Elvis Presley or Graceland souvenirs. It also holds copyrights to many of the songs Presley recorded. One branch of the business watches over TV, movie and stage productions.
Elvis-trademark ventures are under way, as Ward describes it, “in all major industrialized countries.” The name Graceland is also a registered trademark.
Most mainstream businesses these days contact the estate first off if they have an Elvis-oriented idea.
Producers of the TV sitcom “Cheers” got permission for an episode last year in which one of the stars had a dream about Elvis.
“We helped them with the script. . . . We helped in the selection of the person who actually portrayed Elvis,” Ward said.
At Graceland, the official Elvis lore emphasizes his talent and his rise from rags to riches, not the messier side of his life, such as the use of multiple drugs implicated in his death at age 42.
Ward insists that his interest is in commerce, not in limiting free speech or public comment about Presley or his lifestyle.
“We think we know where the line is; other people think they do,” he said. “We’re fully cognizant of the First Amendment and try to make our decisions accordingly.”
With writers of books or stories with Presley-like characters, the distinctions between free speech and commerce can be unclear.
One writer of a recent book claiming Presley is still alive drew a look from the estate, since the venture included the selling of a tape said to be a phone conversation with Elvis.
No legal action was taken, largely because the book was a flop, Ward said.
And, while the horde of Elvis look-alikes haunting the honky-tonks may be too large to corral, the estate often goes after the ones known to be making a living at it.
Graceland manager Jack Soden said efforts to control the Elvis image are motivated by more than immediate financial gain.
The plan is to make Graceland a piece of Americana attractive to tourists in general, not just the Elvis faithful, he said.
One of Soden’s first jobs was to shut down the independent souvenir stands that took over a shopping center across the street from Graceland shortly after Presley’s death.
The estate was short on cash then, so Soden, a former investment banker, lined up backers to buy the shopping center. The estate got a master lease and, as the souvenir shops’ subleases expired, they were not renewed.
Graceland has entered a deal to buy the shopping center in 1993, and the whole place has been remodeled as a single operation.
Presley lived well in his glory years, but the Mississippi country boy’s business acumen was far from polished.
He sold more records than any other entertainer, but left an estate worth only $5 million--and the tax collectors had their eyes on that.
Within a few years after his death in 1977, the estate was barely breaking even. Presley had sold RCA the royalty rights to his recordings made before 1973, and no one was keeping up with the music copyrights or the souvenirs.
The pilgrims ever drawn to Graceland paid nothing to hang around out front, and spent their money with the souvenir bootleggers across the street.
It was then that Presley’s former wife, Priscilla, and other executors of the singer’s estate decided to open Graceland to tourists and nail down the publicity rights.