The ‘King’ is dead, long live his merchandise

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Deceased celebrities can generate a fortune long after they are gone, and Jackson’s legacy will likely be his music. Just one day after his death, Michael Jackson’s albums jumped to the top of the retail charts.Jeff Christensen / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Michael Jackson’s career will skyrocket in the months and years ahead, giving the troubled entertainer in death the comeback he longed for in life.

Jackson’s tragic end put him in the same league as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, all of whom continue to generate millions of dollars for their estates. But Jackson, with his immense body of work and the good will he inspires, despite his often bizarre past, could eclipse them all.

“The most famous person on the planet has just died,” said Mark Roesler, founder of CMG Worldwide, a firm that licenses merchandise from such deceased stars as Dean, Rock Hudson and Natalie Wood. “He is someone who changed our culture. There are only certain people who can say that.” (Corrects to remove Chuck Berry's name. Berry is still alive and touring.)

A little more than 24 hours after Jackson’s death in Los Angeles, his albums jumped to the top of the retail charts. On Amazon.com, albums by Jackson and the Jackson 5 accounted for 18 of the top 20 best-selling records Friday. On iTunes, Jackson records occupied nine of the top 10 spots.

Deceased celebrities can generate a fortune long after they are gone. Presley’s estate generated $52 million in 2008, according to the annual Forbes magazine list of top-earning dead celebrities. Second on the list was Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, whose drawings earned his estate $33 million in 2008, according to Forbes.

The source of incomes differs according to how iconic the celebrity was. Presley, for instance, continues to earn money for his estate from the sale of his music. But a huge chunk comes from the sale of merchandise bearing his image, including slot machines, as well as the receipts from admissions to his Graceland home in Memphis.

By contrast, not many people would recognize a photo of Schulz. It’s the licensing of his characters, including Charlie Brown and Snoopy, that generates the income for his estate.

A musical legacy
Jackson’s legacy will likely be his music, not his image, says Michael Stone, president and chief executive of The Beanstalk Group, a brand licensing agency. That will become more clear as the memory of Jackson’s more bizarre moments — dangling his child from a hotel balcony, the lawsuits accusing him of child molestation — fades.

“He will become more recognized and more appreciated for his music,” Stone said. “There will be a rebirth of his music. The weird stuff is not his legacy.

“Elvis got pretty weird at the end of his life also. But that passed. It’s about his music now.”

Like Elvis, the bizarre aspects of Jackson’s life, far from tarnishing his image, add a layer of luster that will likely help his star rise even higher.

“You had a brand, Michael Jackson, that was a moving target. No one knew where that brand was going to go — scandals, etc.,” Roesler said. “All of a sudden there is an end. You can get your arms around the story. Now the legend will start to form.”

While Jackson’s place in the pantheon of deceased stars is assured, there are still thorny legal questions that could have record labels, producers, creditors and family members fighting for years.

Jackson reportedly was in debt for hundreds of millions of dollars when he died. His sold-out concert tour in London was supposed to help him reduce the debt and keep his beloved Neverland Ranch in California and his stake in music publishing companies, including a joint venture with Sony Music that controls the Beatles catalog.

Rights unclear
And it is unclear who owns the rights to the myriad forms of intellectual property that make up a celebrity’s estate.

Music companies could own the right to sell reproductions of Jackson’s iconic album covers, for instance. Photographers who snapped the most recognizable, and valuable, images of the King of Pop could also have a claim to royalties from their sale. And then there are the numerous music videos that undoubtedly will be packaged in various compilations and sold in the coming years.

The legal wrangling is not to be underestimated.

Marilyn Monroe’s estate battled for decades over the rights to her image, after her death in 1962. In 1984, California passed legislation that would allow celebrities to leave “rights of publicity” in their wills. But in 2007, federal courts ruled that the right only applies to celebrities who died after the bill became law in 1985.

In response, the legislature passed what became known as the “dead celebrities bill,” which expands the protection to all stars. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a celebrity who may benefit from the bill’s provisions himself one day.

Despite their shock and grief, Jackson’s family should start now to enforce the singer’s legal rights to his image. Monroe’s case was hurt by the proliferation of T-shirts, commemorative plates and other items bearing her image that were sold before her rights were secured.

Similarly, enterprising merchandisers will surely be selling Jackson T-shirts and other items in the coming days, with none of that income going to his estate.

“You have to act quickly to protect the rights,” Stone said. “There are a lot of things to sort out.”