Stuart Banner


On his book American Property: A History of How, Why, and What We Own

Cover Interview of June 06, 2011

A close-up

Chapter 7, “Owning Fame,” is about the rise of property rights in the names and images of famous people.  I bookend the chapter with the stories of two celebrities, Jenny Lind and Elvis Presley.

Lind was the blockbuster performer of the mid-nineteenth century.  Her 1850-1852 tour of the United States packed concert halls from New York to New Orleans and back again.

Lind’s promoter was P.T. Barnum, no stranger to innovative ways of making money.  Everywhere the tour went, shopkeepers were selling Jenny Lind merchandise.  “We had Jenny Lind gloves,” Barnum recalled, “Jenny Lind bonnets, Jenny Lind riding hats, Jenny Lind shawls, mantillas, robes, chairs, sofas, pianos.”  There were Jenny Lind stoves and even Jenny Lind chewing tobacco and cigars, despite Lind’s aversion to cigars. A label for Jenny Lind tobacco, just one of the many unauthorized products bearing her name that Lind encountered on her 1850-52 tour of the United States.  (LC-USZ62-86770, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.)

Yet none of these products earned Lind or Barnum a cent.  Lind’s celebrity was obviously a valuable asset—but neither Lind nor Barnum conceived that Lind had any right to prevent others from commercially exploiting her name or image.

None of the manufacturers or sellers of Jenny Lind merchandise thought he needed Lind’s permission.  Indeed, Barnum was happy so many people were slapping Lind’s name on their products, because it was proof of her popularity, which promised that the concerts would sell out.  It apparently never occurred to him that they were taking money out of Lind’s pocket.

A hundred years later, a new kind of property had come into existence.  When Elvis Presley toured the country in the 1950s, he likely earned more from licensing fees than from ticket sales.  There were Elvis shoes, Elvis jeans, Elvis record players, Elvis bracelets, Elvis lipstick, Elvis statues in plaster of Paris, and much more.

By 1956, still very early in Elvis Presley’s career, thirty companies had fifty licenses for Elvis products to be sold in the country’s leading department stores.  Presley’s licensing agent was Henry G. Saperstein of Beverly Hills, whose other clients included Lassie and the Lone Ranger.

Back in the 1850s, P.T. Barnum had been pleased to discover unauthorized Jenny Lind merchandise.  In the 1950s Saperstein sometimes discovered unauthorized Elvis gear, and when he did, “we sue like mad,” he explained.  “We’ve never lost a case yet.  The courts protect you all the way.”