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Elvis is Everywhere?
Well, it sometimes seems that way, now, doesn’t it? Let’s break down the weird world of Elvis impersonators, how the public views them, and where they stand on the legal spectrum.
You can download the accompanying extra video here.
Let’s start with cosplay, as that can sometimes drive what people do when they dress up like The King. Also, cosplay dates back to 1936, although it did not receive the name until 1984, when the term was first coined. According to Racked, Morojo (Myrtle Rebecca Douglas Smith Gray Nolan) and her long-time beau, Forrest J (Forrie) Ackerman) attended the first-ever World Science Fiction convention dressed as characters from the 1936 HG Wells film, Things to Come. Also per Racked, this photo depicts Forrie and Morojo at the 1939 Worldcon:
Forrie and Morojo at the 1939 WorldCon.
So while of course neither of them dressed as Elvis (whose birth occurred in 1935), the image still depict people who put together their own costumes and dressed as their favorite characters.
In 2013, Business Insider noted that cosplay could cost a lot of money. And those prices, I assure you, have probably only gone up. Also in 2013, Buzzfeed went straight to the source and asked cosplayers just how much time and money their creations cost. Personally, I suspect a lot of the lower estimates might not factor in the cost of labor. Because they should have priced out their own labor, even if they had a blast putting the damned thing together. Or hey might not have factored in the cost of found materials. Found materials can mean stuff found around the house, e. g. let’s use the plunger! Or it can mean articles grabbed from sidewalk trash, e.g. a perfectly good monitor – why would anyone want to throw it away? Also, these can be town dump treasures.
While a lot of cosplayers just do it for fun, some people make a living at it. In 2015, The Hustle looked at cosplaying for money. Essentially, the income streams for cosplays divide into:
- Appearance fees
- Travel stipends
- Modeling work as connected to their cosplay
- Products provided to them for work (e. g. props, shoes, wigs, makeup, etc.) and
- Profits from selling printed and signed images and merchandise
The latter could potentially get some of them into hot water with IP holders. It’s a wise professional cosplayer who asks.
Also, pro cosplayers save money by learning to sew their own costumes and make their own props, or repurpose what they already have. It’s probably a given that they work out regularly and might even get some plastic surgery. And if they can prove these expenses are business-related, they might even get a tax break on some of this stuff in the United States. Any travel they pay for would potentially also be a business expense; check with your accountant, please!
Bringing it all back to the King
So, how does this relate to Mr. Presley’s estate? For that information, let’s trace the estate’s acceptance (or not) of the impersonator phenomenon. Because becoming an Elvis impersonator goes beyond cosplay. You also have to be able to sing, do the dance moves, and get and stay in character.
Way Back When
In 1992, The Los Angeles Times reported that Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc. (at the time, held in trust for Lisa Marie, with the option for her to take control in 1998) would strictly police any merchandise and also any impersonators. Presley’s death had happened nearly fifteen years previously, yet the estate still fought to keep control of the late singer/actor’s likeness and overall image in the public eye. Note that this wasn’t about defamation, as the dead cannot be defamed, at least not in English (also American) law. Instead, it was about the thriving trade in selling tee shirts, music, movies, etc. and even admission to Graceland. And at the time, the estate was rather strict.
Then it all changed.
Fourteen years later, in 2006, Fox News reported that Robert Sillerman, the head of CKX, Inc. (at the time, they had control of Elvis Presley Enterprises) said that tribute artists weren’t even on their radar. While CKX still cared about mugs and the like, the impersonators were able to skirt any copyright issues by injecting some of their own acts/personae into their acts. As a result, they were more often considered interpreters or even parody artists. CKX also understood the impersonator phenomenon helped to continue to drive licensed merchandise sales. Not bad for an artist who, by then, had been dead for a good 29 years.
However, Onstage Entertainment, which had paid for a license to stock their show with an approved impersonator, felt that a crackdown on unlicensed impersonators would (understandably) help their company.
And then the tune changed again.
In 2007, CBS News reported that Sillerman still owned Elvis Presley Enterprises, and also owned the American Idol franchise. And then in 2013, CNN Money broke the news that Authentic Brands Group had purchased the intellectual property from Core Media Group (what Sillerman’s company was then called). While I don’t have information on the 2013 sale, the 2007 deal included 85% of Elvis Presley Enterprises and clocked in at $114 million.
Core Media also runs the Graceland tours, although the family still owns the building.
So, what does this mean? While the Presley estate and Core Media Group still care about their intellectual property rights, they also recognize the value of the impersonator phenomenon. Since fans might purchase, say, James Cawley tickets, they also renew their interest in the original. How long can the estate see a benefit? Time will tell. In the meantime, enjoy James Cawley:
And if you’re wondering about the origin of the title of this blog post, Mojo Nixon can help you out (my apologies to Michael J. Fox):