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Celebrities and the Law in 2012

Celebrity surrounded by papparazzi

After a hectic 2011, it’s been another busy year for the lawyers of the rich and famous, with plenty of high profile legal disputes keeping the courts (and gossip magazines) busy…


The year got off to a busy start with the Velvet Underground suing The Andy Warhol foundation over the rights to the iconic banana image that appeared on the cover of the band’s 1967 The Velvet Underground & Nico album. The dispute would fizzle out in September, after the Warhol Foundation promised that it would never sue the band over use of the image and the judge ruled there was no longer a copyright dispute.

In royal legal news, police dropped charges against the Sydney man who mooned the Queen when she visited Brisbane in 2011. But in Turkey, authorities said they were determined to prosecute Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson for breach of privacy after she secretly filmed a documentary in state orphanages.

A would-be screenwriter Elijah Schkeiban sued James Cameron this month, claiming that Avatar was based on Bats and Butterflies, a sci-fi plot he’d written in the 1980s. He is the sixth screenwriter to sue over the Avatar idea. Schkeiban’s case was thrown out in September.


Beyoncé and Jay-Z found themselves talking to lawyers in February after a New York fashion designer applied to trademark their newborn daughter’s name for a children’s clothing line. The famous parents responded by lodging a competing application for the “Blue Ivy Carter NYC” name.

Britney Spears settled her $10million lawsuit with a beauty company that claimed a percentage of profits from her fragrance deal, which it says it arranged for the star.

Closer to home, local tennis player Bernard Tomic was in a Gold Coast courtroom pleading not guilty to traffic offences. He lost his case in November and was fined and ordered to pay a good behaviour bond.


Protesting outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington D.C., George Clooney was placed in handcuffs and charged with crossing a police line.

In England, Jamie Waylett, who played Vincent Crabbe in some of the Harry Potter movies, was sentenced to two years in jail for participating in the London riots.

In LA, former Desperate Housewives star Nicollette Sheridan’s case against the show for wrongful dismissal was declared a mistrial after jurors were unable to agree on a verdict.


Jennifer Hudson was the first witness to testify in at the trial of her former brother-in-law for the murder of her mother, brother and nephew in 2008. Hudson’s links with the trial sparked discussion about the possible impact of the celebrity’s presence on jurors, as the judge banned cameras and tweeting from the Chicago courtroom. The accused was found guilty and sentenced to three life sentences in July.

Teller, the silent member of the Penn and Teller magic duo sued a Dutch magician for copying his flower shadow magic trick and selling kits and instructions to the public.

Eight years after Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl ‘wardrobe malfunction’, the fallout continues, with the Department of Justice asking the US Supreme Court to review a court decision that threw out the $500,000 fine against broadcaster CBS over the incident.


In a mediation overseen by former High Court Justice Michael McHugh, Paul Hogan settled his long-running tax dispute with the Australian Taxation Office.

Artist RJ Williams claimed that Madonna infringed his distinctive M trademark by using it as the logo for her Truth or Dare perfume. The artist said that he has been using the symbol for the past eight years.

A London lawyer thanked Dustin Hoffman for saving his life. After the lawyer suffered a heart attack in a park, Hoffman called emergency services and stayed with the collapsed man until paramedics were able to revive him.

May was definitely the month for music disputes with Victor Willis (the policeman from the Village People) winning a court battle to reclaim his copyright in many of the group’s biggest hits.

Meanwhile, the Beastie Boys were sued by the band Trouble Funk for sampling parts of their songs without their permission. In a similar vein, George Clinton’s lawsuit against the Black Eyed Peas for unauthorised use of his music in some of their work settled this month.


The Black Keys sued Pizza Hut and Home Depot for using their music in ads without the band’s permission. Both companies denied allegations. Danger Mouse, who co-wrote the music in question, is also suing the companies.

Australian celebrity chef Bill Granger sued his former publisher for printing two books of his recipes without his consent. The publisher claimed that a previous licensing agreement meant they were permitted to use the recipes and that they had been paying royalties from the books to the chef.

TomKat’s divorce was the biggest celebrity legal story of the month, with Katie Holmes filing for divorce from husband Tom Cruise. The separation was finalised less than two weeks later with the details settled out of court.


Tom Cruise sued an American magazine for its coverage of his divorce.

An American company sued Madonna and her record label, claiming that her hit Vogue had sampled the song Love Break (owned by the company) without permission.

Two of the judges involved in Lindsay Lohan’s drink driving case were disciplined this month; one for meeting alone with a lawyer for the actress, the other for refusing to hear Lohan’s lawyer’s arguments and denying the actress bail for a minor charge.


A woman sued Justin Bieber for $9.2 million, claiming that her hearing was permanently damaged at one of the singer’s concerts.

Several cast members from the TV show Modern Family sued their TV network, claiming that the contracts prevented them from taking on other acting work, and that the term of the contracts went beyond the seven year limitation for personal services contracts imposed in California.

Rapper Flo Rida was ordered to pay $400,000 for breach of contract to a Newcastle event organiser after he failed to perform at the Fat As Butter festival last year.

The Beastie Boys were back in court this month, suing Monster Energy Drink for using their songs in ads without the band’s authorisation. Meanwhile, Kanye West celebrated his win in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals against musician Vince P, who claimed that Kanye’s hit Stronger had copied elements of his song (also called Stronger).

Kim Kardashian’s long-running case against Old Navy for using a model that looks similar to her in their ads settled out of court. Kardashian claimed that the use of the lookalike model violated her intellectual property and publicity rights, while the clothing store said that model used was also famous, and not chosen for any resemblance to the reality star.


Bruce Willis was unimpressed this month when he discovered that he wasn’t legally able to leave his digital music collection to a beneficiary when he dies. Rumors circulated that the Die Hard star was consulting with lawyers about the possibility of creating a trust to protect the files, but Willis’ wife denied the story.

The company behind the Mr. Whippy ice cream trucks sued MasterChef judge George Calombaris, whose restaurant serves a dessert named Mr. Whippy. The company accused Calombaris of trademark infringement. The dessert has since been renamed ‘Mrs. Whippi’. We’re wondering if the court will have an opportunity to do some ice cream taste testing.

Marilyn Monroe’s estate lost the right to charge for the use of the actor’s image. After Monroe’s death, her estate sought to avoid California estate tax by claiming that the actress resided in New York. Unfortunately for the estate, New York does not have the same laws as California when it comes to using the images of dead celebrities. Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw quoted Monroe in her judgment: “If you're going to be two-faced, at least make one of them pretty.”

The Duchess of Cambridge successfully sued French magazine Closer after it published topless images of her on holidays with husband Prince William. A French court ordered the magazine to turn over the images and pay a fine each time the pictures were republished.

A Sydney court placed Lara Bingle on an 18-month good behaviour bond and banned the model from driving for a year, after she pleaded guilty to driving offences relating to an accident with a motorcyclist.


Tom Cruise filed additional defamation proceedings against magazines this month in response to reports that he had ‘abandoned’ daughter Suri after his divorce from Katie Holmes. Cruise is claiming US$50million in damages.

The estate of Nobel Prize winning writer William Faulkner sued Sony Pictures for referring to his works in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris without permission. Although Faulkner misquoted in the movie, his estate is suing the studio for copyright infringement.


The producer of Monty Python’s movie The Holy Grail sued the comedians over royalties from Spamalot, the musical show based on the film. Mark Forstater claimed that he had an agreement with the group that he would receive an equal share of proceeds from any other projects the film spun off. The Python team said that Forstater’s agreed share of royalties was less than the amount claimed.


Naomi Campbell sued London’s Daily Telegraph for libel in response to a story that she had organised an elephant polo match as part of a party in India.

In LA, a hacker was jailed for 10 years for hacking celebrities’ email accounts and distributing naked pictures of stars such as Scarlett Johansson and Christina Aguilera. He was also ordered to pay $76,000 to several of his victims.

Elle Macpherson is expected to give evidence in a case against the publisher of The Sun and News of the World newspapers. Macpherson’s former adviser Mary-Ellen Field, who says the model sacked her on the suspicion that she had been passing information to British tabloids, has brought the action. Field alleges that the press had actually obtained the information by intercepting voicemail messages. The matter was adjourned earlier this week to allow Field’s legal team to seek evidence from Macpherson.

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