Copyrights keep image fit for King

March 31, 1994|By Boston Globe

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The "Elvis police" struck quickly after they learned that the new Lady Luck casino in Tunica, Miss., had a mural featuring Elvis Presley.

"They told the casino: 'You pay us X number of dollars or you take that picture off the wall,' " said a Tunica businessman who learned of the conflict at the grand opening a few months ago. "I guess they were asking too much money, because the casino put a black cloth over Elvis' face and covered him up."

They were asking $1 million, according to a Lady Luck associate who expanded on the story. The case was resolved, he said, when the casino painted over Elvis with a likeness of Frank Sinatra.

Tales of the vigilance of the estate of Elvis Presley, whose agents swoop down from Memphis with the alacrity of eagles, are becoming part of The King's legend in his home region. "You can't do nothing that uses Elvis' name without having them jump on you," said a Memphis man who wanted to remain anonymous.

In the 17 years since Presley's death, his estate has been built into a multimillion-dollar empire of T-shirts, lithographs, coffee mugs, caps, commemorative stamps and coins. Even his name is up for franchise, and those who dare use it without permission invite a lawsuit.

An entrepreneur who wanted to use Elvis as the motif for a public event said he filled out forms from Graceland, the Presley mansion on old Highway 51, a road that has been renamed -- presumably with permission -- Elvis Presley Boulevard. "When I never heard from them," the applicant said, "I just went ahead and did it" -- all the time expecting to hear from the Elvis police.

"Elvis police? I never heard that term," said Pete Davidson, the senior licensing manager at Graceland. "Someone must think they are being funny."

To the folks at Graceland, the unauthorized use of Elvis is no laughing matter. "We have a very valuable property," said Mr. Davidson. "His name and his image are copyrighted. We manage them carefully and license them carefully. When we discover something that is unlicensed, we take action."

Asked for examples of enforcement, Mr. Davidson said: "I wouldn't want to comment. There's no reason to call attention to infringements."

If they have no "police," who watches for bootleg material? "Our fans and other people," said Mr. Davidson. "Sometimes we see it ourselves in the marketplace."

Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc., the business arm of the estate, is no stranger to the marketplace. There are official Elvis collector dolls and Elvis collector plates. The Franklin Mint offers a limited edition of Elvis lithographs. Hallmark produces Elvis paper plates and napkins for those who care enough to send the very best to their picnics. There are even Elvis trading cards.

"We also have a successful coin program," Mr. Davidson said, pointing out that an Elvis coin is used as legal tender in the Marshall Islands out in the Pacific.

Graceland, the mansion Presley bought in 1957, has been converted into a commercial kingdom. A tour of the house costs $8. Elvis' automobile museum costs an additional $4.50. So does a tour of his two private airplanes, grounded behind a fence in the parking lot (another $2 for parking). The "Sincerely Elvis" museum, displaying his sequined jumpsuits, is a mere $2.75.

Presley's sole heir is his daughter, Lisa Marie, who is 26 and lives in California. Though not a direct beneficiary, his former wife, Priscilla, is employed by the estate, according to guides at Graceland.

After Elvis died, his estate was given control over his name and likeness in a judicial decree that some in Memphis describe as extraordinary. Mr. Davidson said it is no different from the protection given to the heirs of Walt Disney, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart.

At any rate, Elvis' fortune has become greater in death than life.

The legal "protection" extends to impersonators. When the makers of the recent movie "True Romance" wanted to use a ghostly Elvis-like figure as a character "they cooperated with us," said Mr. Davidson. "They paid for the rights."

Elvis impersonators are judged, he said, on a "case-by-case basis." When asked about a professional impersonator in New Orleans, Mr. Davidson expressed interest and called back the next day for more details. The Elvis wannabe probably will be hearing soon from the Elvis police.

One of the items for sale at Graceland is a mug that carries a picture of Elvis and the words: "The sun never sets on a legend." Nor on profits from his name.

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