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SAG, MPAA Deadlock on Rights to Deceased

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Last-minute attempts to come up with a compromise on a controversial bill pending in the California Legislature have failed to convince the MPAA that the bill will not violate filmmakers' rights to depict deceased celebrities and historical figures without fear of being sued by the dead personalities' relatives. The legislation, Senate Bill 209, would expand the legal protections now afforded deceased persons by further limiting the use of their names and likenesses without the consent of their heirs.

The bill, sponsored by the Screen Actors Guild, is opposed by the MPAA and all of the major studios and networks. It is also opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and by several newspapers, authors, and playwrights who believe it will have a chilling effect on their ability to depict the lives of dead celebrities and historical figures. The MPAA also objects to a provision in the bill that would require filmmakers to seek permission from the heirs of a dead celebrity or historical figure any time that person's image is altered digitally.

The bill's author, State Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, has been attempting to fashion a compromise that will be acceptable to all the concerned parties, but last week MPAA president Jack Valenti told Burton the compromise still falls short of the film and television industry's needs.

"We must unfortunately continue to oppose any provisions in SB 209 relating to digital technology, as it has been impossible to date for our collective legal experts to fashion mutually agreeable language," Valenti said in a letter to Burton.

Valenti said SB 209, as amended, would also "preclude motion pictures like Forrest Gump [which inserted a fictional character into news footage], even if moviemakers did not put new words into the mouths of performers."

The bill goes before a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee next, and a final compromise must be worked out before then if the bill is to have any chance of becoming law.

SAG president Richard Masur supports the bill because he says it goes a long way toward protecting actors from having their performances digitally altered after their deaths.

"What's at issue here," he said, "is that unlike any time in the past, the ability to take someone's image and voice and make a new performance using the person's actual image and voice has never existed before. You should not take a performance and digitally re-animate it without the permission of the heirs."

David Robb writes for the Hollywood Reporter.

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