The Curious Case Of The Posthumous Steve Jobs Doll

Posted by By at 12 January, at 21 : 44 PM Print

Only months after Steve Jobs, Apple’s charismatic co-founder, passed away after a protracted battle with pancreatic cancer, a Chinese company is looking to memorialize the visionary leader–in the form of a 12” collectible doll.

The doll, which has yet to be released (but is expected sometime in late February), has already raised the hackles of Apple’s legal department. In response, Apple has fired off a cease-and-desist letter to Hong Kong-based In Icons, the manufacturer of the doll, threatening suit if the company decides to sell the doll in the United States.

According to the In Icons website, for $99.99 (or $135 on eBay), customers can purchase a miniature (yet freakishly realistic) version of the former Apple CEO for their home collections. The doll features a “realistic head sculpt,” and comes with a bevy of accessories, including the founder’s signature black turtleneck, blue jeans and glasses combo, a “highly articulated body & [t]hree pairs of hands.” In other words, what they’re selling is a Jobsian Mr. Potato Head.

Also included with the doll are two apples–one already missing a bite, a la Apple’s famous trademarked logo, and a rather shameless backdrop of Jobs’ well-known keynote catch-phrase, “One More Thing.”

According to ABC News, Tandy Cheung, the Hong Kong businessman behind the Jobs doll, says he has no intention of honoring Apple’s request. Cheung asserted that “Steve Jobs is not an actor, he’s just a celebrity… There is no copyright protection for a normal person.”

Current law suggests that despite Cheung’s limited appreciation of U.S. law, Apple may nonetheless have a strong legal position if In Icons does ignore the company’s legal threat. That’s because while Mr. Cheung may be correct on the matter of copyright, he’s forgetting that Apple may have other legal remedies, namely Apple’s trademark rights, and Steve Jobs’ right of publicity.

Trademark law protects the use of words, symbols, phrases, or even images that customers rely on to distinguish specific products and services associated with one seller from the products and services of another. What In Icons may not have considered is the fact that Apple not only owns trademarks in the Apple name and logo for use on its MacBooks, iPods, and Nanos, but it also owns rights to the name, logo, and the well-known bitten apple icon for dozens periphery goods and services–including “…toys and games, namely, action figures and accessories.”{{1}}

That said, the far more interesting legal argument concerns the use of Mr. Jobs’ name and likeness under the various state right of publicity statutes.

Although most states do not recognize a posthumous right of publicity, many states–including Pennsylvania, Nevada, Indiana and California–do. Apple’s home state of California, for example, grants any deceased person’s heirs or assigns with a right to sue anyone who makes commercial use of an individual’s “name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness.”{{2}} The act further provides that such rights are transferrable by contract or trust, and since it’s highly probable that Mr. Jobs had some sort of written arrangement with Apple on the use of his name and likeness when he was alive, it’s equally likely they own the rights after death.

It turns out that In Icons isn’t the first to honor Jobs with a creepy doll, just the first to do so posthumously. In November 2010, Chinese manufacturer M.I.C. Gadget announced that it would discontinue its line of “Steve Jobs Action Figures” after Apple’s legal department threatened the company with a lawsuit. It wasn’t a total loss for the company, however, as M.I.C. managed to sell out its first batch of 300 dolls for $79 each.

Photo by In Icons

[[1]] U.S. Reg. No. 2,951,270.  Apple has owned this mark since 2002.[[1]]

[[2]]Cal. Civ. Code § 3344.1.[[2]]

This post was written by:
- who has written 6 posts for Rock The Capital
Carey N. Lening, Esq. is a solo practitioner, writer, and lecturer who is devoted to legal issues relating to technology, security & privacy, social media, and intellectual property. She writes on areas ranging from business data privacy and security to the legislative changes affecting privacy, copyright, and trademark law. Ms. Lening received her Juris Doctorate from Pierce Law Center of Concord, NH. Prior to opening her practice, Ms. Lening was a journalist for BNA’s Patent, Trademark & Copyright Journal. - Email Carey Lening

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