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Michael Jackson estate scores a win in copyright case

A federal judge bars entrepreneur Howard Mann, a partner of the pop star's mother, from profiting from use of Jackson's name in a line of merchandise separate from the estate.

August 11, 2012|By Harriet Ryan, Los Angeles Times

A federal judge rejected a novel legal argument Friday that would have allowed Michael Jackson's mother and her business partner to profit from a line of merchandise separate from the late star's estate.

In a 15-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson granted summary judgment in a copyright infringement case brought by the executors of Jackson's estate and issued a permanent injunction barring Canadian entrepreneur Howard Mann from trading on the singer's name.

"There is undisputed evidence that Defendants intended in bad faith to profit from use of Jackson's name, by registering multiple domain names containing his name or the initials 'MJ' to sell Jackson-related products," the judge wrote.

Katherine Jackson was not named in the suit, but she gave Mann's projects her blessing. They collaborated on a coffee table book and calendar that were sold without the estate's authorization. The singer's 82-year-old mother received a cut of the profits and other money amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, Mann told The Times in 2010. Katherine Jackson, whose living expenses are covered by the estate, said at the time that she needed the money and wanted executors John Branca and John McClain to "leave Howard alone."

Mann's lawyers had argued in court papers that his company, Vintage Pop, was forever immunized against suits accusing it of exploiting Jackson's intellectual property because of the ruling in a 2004 suit by the singer. Michael Jackson had sued Vintage Pop for copyright infringement and other claims, but then refused to submit to a deposition and stopped paying his lawyers. A judge dismissed the case in 2006 "with prejudice" — meaning Jackson couldn't bring the same claims against Vintage Pop again.

But in his ruling Pregerson wrote that executors had the right to sue Vintage Pop if their allegations were completely different than the ones Jackson made in the earlier suit.

All "of the misconduct alleged in this suit took place long after the 2004 action, and the claims from the two suits therefore do not arise from the same transactional nucleus of facts," the judge wrote.

A spokesman for the executors said they were "extremely pleased with the court's ruling" and noted that Jackson's intellectual property is "owned by the late singer's estate for the benefit of his children and mother."

The relationship between the Jackson family and the estate has been contentious, with three of the singer's siblings alleging the executors derive their power from a fraudulent will. The executors have dismissed the allegations as grounded in "stale Internet conspiracy theories" and noted the judge presiding over the settling of the estate had accepted the will.

Mann's lawyers said they wanted to raise questions about the validity of the document at his trial, but estate lawyer Howard Weitzman said in a statement that the judge's ruling means that court proceedings in September will focus on how much Mann will have to pay in damages. Mann did not return a message seeking comment.

harriet.ryan@latimes.com

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