Digital detente

Deal on Astaire bill won't limit pic images

Forrest Gump talking to JFK is cool, Fred Astaire teaching dirty dancing isn’t.

That’s the crux of a compromise forged Wednesday in the California Legislature over the so-called Astaire bill, which has split Hollywood this summer, pitting the Screen Actors Guild and heirs of celebrities against the major studios.

The stakes for all parties could be huge, since advances in digital technology may soon allow dead celebrities to “perform” as if they were in their prime. With the major players in agreement on the compromise, the bill is virtually certain to become law.

The measure, properly known as Senate Bill 209, limits use of images of deceased celebrities without heirs’ consent. In addition to major studios, the bill has drawn opposition from networks, the Motion Picture Assn. of America and the ACLU, all of whom complained that it would impinge on artistic freedom.

On Wednesday, the MPAA dropped its opposition after the bill’s sponsors agreed to restrict its focus to the use of celebrity images for commercial uses. The portion of the bill dealing with digitilization — the use of dead celebrities’ images in entirely new performances — was dropped.

The compromise version of the bill allows heirs to block commercial uses of deceased celebrities’ likenesses, while giving “safe harbor exemption” to artistic uses, such as the inclusion of JFK in “Gump.”

The legislation was authored by State Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, a Democrat, at the request of Fred Astaire’s widow, Robyn Astaire, and the Screen Actors Guild. Astaire objected to footage of her deceased husband being used in a dance instruction video and a picture being used on a condom package.

“Our safe harbor exemptions have been retained, while new language that was added to prohibit the commercial exploitation of deceased personalities was crafted in such a way that resolved our objections,” said Vans Stevenson, MPAA senior VP for state legislative affairs. “We are extremely gratified we were able to reach an accord.”

Robyn Astaire hailed the compromise as “another step forward in the long fight to vindicate the rights of artists and prominent people.”

The revised bill unanimously passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee Wednesday. It will next be voted on by the full Assembly, after which the state Senate (which passed the previous version) must concur. It will then go to Gov. Gray Davis for his signature. Insiders said they expect it will sail past all three points.

The issues surrounding the digital manipulation of footage, which were put aside in the compromise, will be discussed in meetings this fall after the close of the current state legislative session.

“This is substantial progress towards correcting fundamental defects in the law,” said Thomas A. White, intellectual property expert for Robyn Astaire, “(but Astaire) is by no means finished. She will return with other legislation.”

(Nick Madigan contributed to this report.)

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