5 celebrity lawsuits in the news

Battling over Marvel character ownership, Billy Corgan's tree destroys a neighbor's house and more

Brando Brawl

Madonna is no stranger to legal problems: In the past few months, officials from France to Russia have threatened her with lawsuits. But now the material girl is at the center of a lawsuit from beyond the grave. In the Madonna’s 1990 hit song, “Vogue,” the singer lists the names of several famous deceased celebrities: “Greta Garbo and Monroe/Dietrich and Dimaggio/ Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean/ On the cover of a magazine.”

When she performed the song at the Super Bowl, Madonna paid each actor’s estate $3,750 for rights to use their names. Most of these estates are represented by an Indiana-based company called CMG Worldwide. A separate entity represents Marlon Brando, however, and, in true Don Corleone style, it demanded that Madonna pay $20,000 per Brando reference. Unfortunately, each celebrity’s estate has a “most favored nation clause” with Madonna, meaning that each one must be paid the same as all the others, upping Madonna’s fees for “Vogue” to $200,000 per performance. CMG Worldwide is now suing Brando’s estate for breach of contract and is asking a judge to keep the fees at $5,000.

(Ex-)Spousal Spat

It’s not uncommon for people to fight with their ex-spouses. But Jennifer Lopez was facing an especially costly spat with her ex-husband after she objected to a TV movie about their failed union. Ojani Noa, Lopez’s first husband, was reportedly working on a Telemundo film called “I Owe JLo,” which the film’s producer called a “comedic parody of Noa’s life crafted almost entirely from the material that is already in the public domain.”

But J-Lo didn’t exactly see it that way, alleging that the movie could reveal information that would damage her career. She sent Noa and his business partner cease-and-desist letters—and sued them for $10 million for breach of contract, violation of publicity rights and invasion of privacy. The film’s producer countered with her own $10 million tortious interference lawsuit. Fortunately for the singer, an appellate court dismissed the case last month.

Treacherous Tree

Former “Grey’s Anatomy” star Eric Dane is no stranger to drama, but he says his wife and daughter almost suffered a real-life medical emergency when a tree belonging to neighbor and “Smashing Pumpkins” frontman Billy Corgan allegedly fell onto the family’s house during a storm.

According to the lawsuit, Dane’s pregnant wife, actress Rebecca Gayheart, and the couple’s 20-month-old daughter were home alone during the incident when the tree crashed into their house. The tree reportedly activated the sprinkler system, flooding the house, and snapped nearby high-voltage power lines. Gayheart and the couple’s daughter fled the house, but neither was harmed during the incident.

Dane claimed that Corgan knew that the tree was dangerous, an allegation that Corgan calls “patently untrue.” Dane is reportedly seeking unspecified damages for nuisance, negligence and injunctive relief.

Frank Fracas

Would you believe that a hot dog stand named “Franks Anatra” had nothing to do with Ol’ Blue Eyes? Yeah, neither did the U.S. Trademark Office. Bill Loizon, whose hot dog truck business bears the above name, attempted to trademark the moniker, arguing that it had no connection to the famed crooner. According to Loizon, “franks” means “frankfurters, hot dogs and other similar food items,” while “anatra” is the Italian word for “duck.” He also argued that Sinatra was not sufficiently famous for customers to presume a connection.

The Trademark office saw things differently, however. It denied Loizon’s application, stating in its ruling that “There is nothing inherent in applicant’s mark or in his marketing to lead consumers to translate the world ‘Anatra’ to duck. Furthermore, we do not understand how applicant’s mark engenders the commercial impression relating to anything other than a play on the Frank Sinatra name.”

Marvel Muddle

Spiderman might as well spin webs of gold, for all the money he and his fellow Marvel superheroes make for Walt Disney Co. But Stan Lee Media says the characters have been filling Disney’s coffers illegally. It claims that Stan Lee, the creator of many Marvel comic book characters, assigned the rights to those characters to Stan Lee Media in 1998, only to turn around a month later and assign them to Marvel Enterprises.

Disney acquired Marvel Enterprises in 2009, and has gone on to rake in money hand over fist from such ventures as the wildly successful movie “The Avengers” and the much-mocked but still money-making Broadway show “Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark.”

Stan Lee Media is seeking “billions of dollars in profits” in its suit against Disney, which reads: "The Walt Disney Company has represented to the public that it, in fact, owns the copyright to these characters as well as hundreds of other characters created by Stan Lee. Those representations made to the public by the Walt Disney Company are false."

Disney responded in a statement that the lawsuit is “without merit.”

Contributing Author

Alanna Byrne

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