TMZ is reporting that the family of the late "Hot Stuff" Eddie Gilbert is suing WWE for using Eddie's image and likeness on their television programming and other media platforms without their express permission and also without paying them royalties for the rights to do so.
As well as working for the WWF as a young babyface from October 1982 to April 1984, Eddie also had stints wrestling for Jerry Jarrett's CWA/USWA promotion in Tennessee, Bill Watts' Universal Wrestling Federation, Jim Crockett Promotions, Ted Turner's WCW and Tod Gordon's Eastern Championship Wrestling (ECW), amongst other territories.
WWE owns the Mid South/UWF, WCW and ECW tape libraries, so there are several matches of his on the WWE Network. Footage of Gilbert would also be included on some WWE DVDs; most notably one of his matches against Jerry "The King" Lawler was chosen for inclusion on the It’s Good To Be The King: The Jerry Lawler Story DVD that comes out next month.
According to TMZ, Gilbert's family isn't suing to stop WWE from using his footage, but are seeking royalties, plus damages. It will be interesting to see whether other wrestlers will file similar lawsuits against WWE, as this doesn't seem to be an isolated problem.
Indeed, when former WWE wrestler Matt Hardy was asked on Twitter earlier this week whether WWE pays him whenever they add content of his onto the WWE Network, he confirmed that he doesn't receive any compensation whatsoever for that:
NO-Our contracts specified royalties on PPV, DVD & merch, but no network language existed then. Seems like they should, right? @HEELDanielle— Matt Hardy (@MATTHARDYBRAND) April 16, 2015
Talent would love to.. But WWE would never voluntarily make those revisions unless they were legally made to. @MattWRoberts— Matt Hardy (@MATTHARDYBRAND) April 16, 2015
Actually, in recent contracts, such as Paul "Triple H" Levesque's 2012 booking agreement, there is a clause which specifically states that WWE won't pay royalties to their talent for subscription VOD services like the WWE Network:
"7.7 No Royalties Paid to WRESTLER. Except as specifically set forth in Section 7.1 through 7.4 above, WRESTLER shall not be eligible for any payment or royalties with respect to any other goods, services or otherwise including without limitation to the following: television license fees; television subscription fees; internet subscription fees; subscription video on demand fees; magazine subscription fees and/or advertising; and/or distribution fees of any kind paid to PROMOTER by any entity in connection with the exploitation of the Intellectual Property."
Clearly, WWE has their legal bases well covered on this issue, even though such clauses seem unfair on the surface.
WWE representatives told TMZ that they expect the lawsuit to be dismissed because they have purchased the legal rights to use old footage from other wrestling groups like WCW and ECW when those companies went out of business.
This isn't the first time WWE has been hit with lawsuits over withheld royalties. On June 22nd, 2010, Martha Hart sued WWE for using her late husband Owen Hart's likeness without permission and not paying royalties for that usage. After a lengthy legal battle, which saw Martha forced to quickly drop her most outrageous claims (like enjoining WWE from further using Owen Hart’s name and likeness), WWE eventually settled with her out of court. In December 2011, former AWA wrestler Pretty Boy Doug Somers sued WWE for royalties over using matches of his on their DVD compilations, but he ultimately lost his case. Thus, the Gilbert family will be in for a long fight, with no guarantee of success, to get any cash out of Vince McMahon's coffers.
Update 1. Shortly after this article was published, PWInsider.com published the following official statement from WWE about the Gilbert family's lawsuit against the company:
"Through the years, WWE has acquired the legal rights to library footage of various former wrestling organizations including Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and Mid-Southern Wrestling among many others. WWE has made these substantial investments to acquire these copyrighted works and has the legal right to use them. Similar cases in the past have been unsuccessful and we expect this case to be dismissed."
As we had already mentioned, a similar case brought by former AWA wrestler Pretty Boy Doug Somers was dismissed a couple of years ago, but that was before the company had started the WWE Network.
Update 2. David Bixenspan of WrestlingInc.com (and a variety of other places, past and present) is reporting that the Gilbert family is also suing ESPN, as both Eddie Gilbert and his brother Doug appear on the old Global Wrestling Federation (GWF) shows that currently air on ESPN Classic in the United States. Bixenspan's informative article also includes the following quote from the lawsuit:
"While they performed live, neither of the Gilberts signed contracts or gave permission to WWE or ESPN to use recordings of the Gilberts' names or likenesses. The defendants have impermissibly and in violation of the Gilberts' rights of privacy shown recordings of past wrestling matches that use and display the Gilberts' names and likenesses. Additionally, Defendants have violated the Gilberts' rights of privacy by using the Gilberts' names and likenesses through other media. Neither Doug Gilbert nor Eddie Gilbert has received compensation for the Defendants' use of the Gilberts' names and likenesses. Accordingly, the Gilberts seek compensation and all other damages to which they are entitled based on Defendants violation of the Gilberts' rights of privacy."
It should be noted that similar invasion of privacy arguments were used in the Somers lawsuit, but were dismissed by U.S. District Judge Marvin H. Shoob because he had spent years of his life seeking fame as a professional wrestler and had performed in front of thousands of fans on a regular basis.