The King's Court
Attorney William Bradley of Glankler Brown protects Elvis Presley's intellectual property rights.
photograph by Brandon Dill
Beauty isn’t the only thing that exists in the eye of the beholder. In the largely subjective world of trademark infringement and intellectual property rights, attorneys must sometimes prove what is alike and unlike.
“It’s an inexact science,” says William (Bill) Bradley, attorney and managing partner for Glankler Brown, whose work, even with high-profile celebrity estates, often falls into gray areas. “It’s in the eye of the beholder — what one person may consider infringing and what someone else thinks about it. There’s always a push and pull between those who want to fairly trade on someone’s property and those who don’t want it used for any other purpose.”
And for one notable client of Bradley’s, it’s a never-ending battle.
Bradley grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and went to law school at Ole Miss. Eager for a more urban life close to home in the Delta, he moved to Memphis in 1984 and joined Glankler Brown.
“I came up and was assigned originally with Frank Glankler, who was a colorful character, a former marine and a well-known Memphis lawyer,” says Bradley. “I had a close personal relationship with him over the years.”
Glankler Brown was actually his second choice. In 1983 Bradley planned to go to work for someone who had been nominated as a federal judge, but the confirmation was held up by politics, and Bradley decided he needed to get to work sooner than that.
He has remained at Glankler Brown ever since — a trend he says is no longer common among young attorneys.
“If you track our industry now, there’s a lot more movement,” says Bradley. “There’s more transitioning now. I think people move laterally to improve their position economically or to gain expertise in other areas. I think young people are more likely to move. They don’t view their job as their final destination.”
But Bradley rose up through the ranks and learned the field to which he was assigned: intellectual property and trademark disputes. His first case was for another Mississippian who’d also come to Memphis looking for a better life, Elvis Presley.
“Our law firm had represented Elvis Presley since the 1970s, to the extent that he had needed representation,” says Bradley. “He was tightly controlled by his manager, but he did have need of legal assistance from time to time. Later we worked for his estate.”
When Presley died in 1977, the estate was probated and eventually a corporation, Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), was formed to manage the holdings.
The case became something of an anomaly, though, because while Presley himself died, his celebrity never did. If anything it grew and grew until it became the kind of multi-million-dollar merchandising operation the likes of which few other celebrities in history have attained.
Bradley struggles to think of another similar operation. Marilyn Monroe comes to mind, possibly Michael Jackson.
“The first project I worked on at the law firm was a case against an infringer of [EPE’s] intellectual property rights,” says Bradley. “Even today they have people who misappropriate either their trademarks or their likeness rights, which are known as the right of publicity.”
More often than not, Bradley has handled infringements surrounding claims against EPE brought by people claiming to be relatives of Elvis Presley. Some of them are attention-seekers, says Bradley, while others have psychiatric problems. Others are downright amusing.
“I think there’s a desire to be famous and to have recognition,” says Bradley. “Sadly most of these people have real moms and dads.
“Usually [the suit] never gets to a testing stage, because a lot of procedural grounds bar people from bringing claims. Elvis died in 1977. If they wanted to bring claims, they had to do it long ago.”
Still that doesn’t stop people from trying.
“[EPE] is not out trying to disprove claims,” says Bradley. “It’s relatively harmless. They only react because they are being sued and have to defend themselves.”
The other celebrity estate Bradley has worked for is that of Frank Sinatra. He explains that Sinatra’s children originally set up the estate’s corporation in Tennessee believing the state’s laws to be favorable to estate. After about four years, though, the family moved it to another state.
“Sinatra, as famous as he is, doesn’t have the merchandising side,” says Bradley. “It’s a rare celebrity whose name and image are so powerful that they can be put on T-shirts and mugs and sell. Elvis’ image is still very powerful. Young people who weren’t even alive back then have become fans of Elvis.”
EPE now has its own in-house legal team but still utilizes Glankler Brown for certain types of work. What has been on the uptick, involving Elvis Presley and others in general, are cases involving trademark infringement.
Some are not worth pursuing. One example is a teenager infringing on a trademark on a social media profile. In such a case, there is really no monetary damage done to the rightful owner of the trademark and filing a suit might mean some bad PR.
But in the case of one business versus another, the use of a trademark can cause confusion which leads to loss of profits for one.
“First of all you have to have a valid trademark — a symbol, a design, a word, a name,” says Bradley, noting that “Elvis Presley” is a trademarked name. “You have to prove in a case that it has established a secondary meaning, that people see that mark as associated with a company.”
Somehow, that usually does not end up in a side-by-side comparison of two images, says Bradley, but the process can be subjective and confusing.
“I think the practical issue there is asking what is someone’s intent and what economic gain are they seeking?” says Bradley. “What is the injury to the property holder?”
Glankler Brown has 48 attorneys all located in one Memphis office. Memphis, Bradley says, as a largely nonmanufacturing city, isn’t exactly a hotbed of trademark infringements.
Nonetheless, the work cases filed in Memphis are certainly out of the ordinary.
“I’ve always enjoyed intellectual property work because it’s different,” says Bradley. “I’ve found it fascinating and a bit unusual.”