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(Mackenzie Stroh)
(Mackenzie Stroh)

Toronto native Jamie Salter rebrands Marilyn Monroe Add to ...

Salter says that cracking down on counterfeiters often isn’t as hard as you might think. Licensed manufacturers and their distributors are usually pretty good at finding the small fry—head shops, hustlers outside concerts and the like—and notifying Authentic (its staff of 24 includes three lawyers). “You get the guy and, say, he sold 600 shirts. So he’ll stop and he’ll donate $600 or $6,000 to a charity,” Salter says.

More worrisome are disputes with li-censees. “Sometimes the manufacturer is selling 20% of the goods out the back door in China,” says Salter. But those cases often don’t get to a lawsuit stage, either. A threatening lawyer’s letter is usually enough. “Most people just stop,” he says. “It’s like, ‘I can go do this and get in a lot of trouble. Or I can just pay the royalty and not have a problem.’ ”

One promoter who thought a fight was justified is Marley’s half-brother, Richard Booker, who promotes a Marley music festival in Florida, a restaurant chain in Jamaica and a proposed line of food and drinks. Last December, the estate sued Booker in a Miami court; Booker is fighting the suit.

As for proven counterfeiters, two other corrective tactics besides legal letters are to limit the number of licensed manufacturers of any particular type of merchandise, and to deal only with established retailers. In Marley’s case, there are only three official T-shirt manufacturers, the biggest being Zion Rootswear, which is owned by Florida’s Conley family and which touts Cedella as a guiding force and designer.

Besides pursuing usurpers, upgrading a star’s image is the other standard strategy that Salter uses to boost brand revenues. With Marley, that meant introducing products that reflected Marley family values—“you know: giving back, world peace and using the environment.” Hence: rasta-coloured Billabong shorts made from fibres of recycled plastic, and $200-plus headphones that incorporate wood and canvas.

But forging a connection between Bob Marley and mountain-grown Jamaican coffee is more of a stretch. Coffee is not an agricultural product that he promoted in his lifetime. Yet one he did use and tout heavily—ganja—has been almost entirely laundered out of the estate’s official merchandise. Salter says that was quite deliberate: “We stayed away from that kind of stuff.” Yet the Zion Rootswear site sells licensed merchandise from other icons that appeal to the stoner demographic—Jerry Garcia and Willie Nelson “legalize it” T-shirts.

Salter’s contract with Cedella Marley expired at the end of March. He has nothing but kudos for Cedella, but he adds that the stint proved that it’s better to own a celebrity brand, and have the authority to make decisions quickly, than it is to manage it for someone else for a fee or a small share of the profits.

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Authentic Brands’ first big deal came in September, 2010, and it harked back to Salter’s beginnings in extreme sports rather than his new métier of managing celebrity estates. Authentic bought the two leading lines of mixed martial arts clothing: TapouT and Silver Star Casting Co., a sponsor of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. “This sport is still in its infancy,” Salter said at the time. “We strategically chose these acquisitions as our first big move because we’re getting into the right business at the right time.” Authentic has since added two other MMA lines: Sinister and Hitman Fight Gear.

The acquisition of the Monroe estate the following January prompted reporters to again tag Salter as a “dead-celebrity dealmaker.” As with the Marley deal, however, it wasn’t his idea. In the summer of 2010, Salter was approached by a confidante of someone quite removed from Monroe, yet at the same time close to her: Anna Strasberg.

The principal beneficiary of Monroe’s will was the renowned New York method-acting coach Lee Strasberg. When he died in 1982, ownership of Monroe’s estate passed to his widow, Anna.

To say that the Monroe estate was in legal disarray is putting it mildly. The most valuable assets in the estate are her name and likeness—her curves, hair, lips, mole, voice, signature and all the other attributes that make her Marilyn. They have acquired much of that value because of state laws that have entrenched the right of publicity. Essentially, this legal construct means that a celeb’s name and likeness have a value in addition to any fee for the use of a specific photo, song, TV clip or other representation.

One of the pioneers who championed the right of publicity is Mark Roesler, who is chairman and CEO of Indianapolis- and Los Angeles-based CMG Worldwide, a veritable big-box store of dead-celebrity licensing. It manages and represents more than 300 deceased celebrities, including Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, Duke Ellington and Malcolm X, and some living ones such as baseball great Jim Palmer.

Roesler got into the business in 1981, when he was hired by Curtis Publishing to protect the rights to Norman Rockwell’s artwork. Roesler soon discovered that many families of dead celebrities wanted to protect the name of their famous kin—and also felt entitled to compensation for the use of their names and likenesses. In 1993, Roesler won a precedent-setting court settlement for X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, which ordered director Spike Lee to pay her licensing fees for his 1992 Malcolm X biopic.

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