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VOL. 126 | NO. 33 | Thursday, February 17, 2011

Elvis’ Reach Wide in Realm of Law

By Andy Meek

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Elvis Presley’s manager Col. Tom Parker never let too many lawyers around the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Which is ironic, considering the way the music legend’s career is fueling a robust practice of intellectual property law among attorneys around the country and has done so since Presley’s death in 1977.

This month’s announcement from Memphis-based Elvis Presley Enterprises that it’s suing men in Florida and England on claims of copyright infringement and illegal sale of a DVD and CD box set of Elvis recordings and footage is only the most recent in a long, colorful line of examples.

The first single Elvis released in 1954 included the famous promise that it’s “alright, Mama, just any way you do.” A promise that, in reality, only extends so far when it comes to the singer, his fans and anyone who wants to make an unauthorized buck off of the man and his music.

On the one hand, there always will be bootleggers and purveyors of knock-off merchandise looking to capitalize on fandom, no matter the artist. Yet at last week’s University of Memphis Law Review Symposium, Glankler Brown PLLC chief manager William R. Bradley Jr. – whose firm has long worked with the Presley family – elicited surprise with his illustrations of the scope of Presley-related courtroom fodder.

He said Elvis cases have been cited in every federal Circuit Court of Appeals in the U.S., as well as the Supreme Court, and that about 200 federal appeals court decisions have cited or made some reference to an Elvis Presley decision in order to support some proposition of law.

The overseers of Elvis’ brand have been “pretty litigious over the years. But they’ve tried to be strategic about the cases they pick.”

 – William Bradley Jr.
Glankler Brown PLLC

In every year since 1977, Bradley said there’s been a lawyer somewhere representing a client claiming a family tie to Elvis.

Part of that is a result of the lingering worldwide appeal of the patron saint of rock. Part of it also is a result of the fact “during his lifetime, Elvis didn’t do too much to protect his rights,” according to Bradley.

Managers of the Presley estate and Elvis brand are making up for that in spades.

Robert Sillerman, the former head of EPE’s parent company, once famously floated the possibility that legal action might be taken against Elvis impersonators, the number of which is estimated in the tens of thousands.

EPE has acquired many of the storefronts and properties around the Graceland mansion that was Elvis’ home. A few years ago, the organization that handles the Presley brand and merchandise-related issues tweaked the license agreements with vendors to prohibit them from selling their Elvis wares to unauthorized retailers within a certain radius of Graceland.

Bradley said the overseers of Presley’s estate, brand and likeness have been “pretty litigious over the years.”

“But they’ve tried to be strategic about the cases they pick,” he said.

That includes the copyright infringement lawsuit EPE filed recently in England and Wales against Joseph Pirzada, alleging he is the source of an unauthorized box set of recordings and footage.

The court allowed company lawyers and computer experts to search Pirzada’s home last month for evidence. The set reportedly includes footage from a 1977 television special called “Elvis in Concert” and raw footage of Elvis in Omaha, Neb., and Rapid City, S.D.

EPE earlier this month sued another man for the alleged illegal sale and distribution of the Pirzada box set in the U.S.

That lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Florida.

EPE said it’s considering filing additional lawsuits against others involved in the manufacture, sale and release of the box set and other bootlegs.

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