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November 2017

Philadelphia Partner Wins $1.2 Million for Artist in Breach of Contract and Misappropriation of Right of Publicity Case

Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani Philadelphia partner Joshua Slavitt obtained a $1.2 million award in favor of noted African-American artist Thomas Blackshear for breach of contract and misappropriation of his publicity rights against Lenox Corporation after a four-day hearing held earlier this year in San Jose, California. 

In the early 1990s, Blackshear had conceived of an innovative line of collectible figurines and sculptural works in the Afro-Nouveau style called Thomas Blackshear’s Ebony Visions.  Willitts Design International, under contract with Blackshear, launched the Ebony Visions collection, and it quickly became the best-selling line of figurines and sculptures for the African-American collector market.   

In 2009, Lenox acquired Willitts and assumed its contract with Blackshear. Despite the expiration of the contract at the end of 2014, Lenox continued to sell products in the Ebony Visions collection.  When Blackshear tried to let his collectors know that his association with Lenox had come to an end, Lenox sued him (and his business associate, Roger Rawls) in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania claiming they had made false representations about Lenox and the Ebony Visions line. 

Lenox, however, was no longer entitled to sell the goods, and Lenox actually owed Blackshear royalties from its continued sale of Ebony Visions figurines.  Further, the contract with Blackshear specified that all disputes were subject to arbitration, and that arbitration would be conducted in California.  Slavitt secured a stay of the Pennsylvania lawsuit in order to pursue arbitration against Lenox for unpaid royalties and misappropriation of Blackshear’s right of publicity in California. 

The final award recently issued held in favor of Blackshear and Rawls finding that Lenox had breached its contract with Blackshear and had misappropriated his right of publicity. Blackshear was awarded in excess of $500,000 in unpaid royalties, accrued interest, and as right of publicity damages, as well as 100% of his attorney’s fees incurred in defense of the Pennsylvania action and in pursuit of the arbitration in California. In all, the total recovery (inclusive of attorney’s fees) was $1.2 million. 

Joshua R. Slavitt