Oct. 28, 2075
CHICAGO–In a blow to billions of hopeful fans worldwide, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Oprah Winfrey has entered the public domain and is no longer entitled to continued existence as a protected trademark. The decision is the most recent development in Oprah’s decades-long legal struggle to maintain the corporation’s privity with its founder. “We’re down, but not out,” declared Oprah lead counsel David Boies shortly after the decision was announced. “We’ll continue to push for appropriate Congressional action on the issue, and we have papers under consideration at WIPO. This is not over.”
Though speculation remains concerning the broader implications of the Court’s ruling in the case, legal experts agree that the decision has killed Oprah. Harvard Law Professor Yasmine Yarble explains: “The fundamental problem is that corporations typically have perpetual existence, while people do not. Oprah the legal entity has outlived Oprah the physical entity. The managers and shareholders have an understandable interest in maintaining that Oprah is still legally alive. That’s what this case is about. That’s what these past twelve years of litigation have been about.”
Over a dozen or so years, and in over twenty litigations, Oprah has sought to maintain that its continued corporate existence perpetuates that of its founder. Until a binding arbitration resolved the matter last year against it, the company had maintained that the stipulation in Oprah’s bylaws that “each security, note, and debenture certificate issued by the Company” be embossed with “a security and authentication stamp” including a freeze-dried “cell of the Founder” was sufficient to establish privity between the company and the star, and to entitle the company to “the continued enjoyment of the legal rights and privileges” of the beloved mogul.
The company continues to argue that the widespread adoption of the “O Chromosome”–a genome supplement encapsulating each of Oprah’s SNiPs and distributed through lickable add-in cards in birthday issues Oprah’s popular magazine properties–constitutes a de facto perpetual “life” for Oprah as part of the genome of her fans and their descendants.[p]
Recently the company had pinned its hopes on the theory that her continuing value as a brand was sufficient to establish “life” for legal purposes, and had won a sympathetic hearing in Illinois probate courts and, on appeal, in the Illinois Supreme Court. The latest U. S. Supreme Court ruling, however, undermined that theory by refusing to recognize the company’s proprietary interests in her name, likeness, and associated trademarks. In a per curiam opinion, the Court announced that “‘oprah’ has, despite the apparent best efforts of appellant, become an ubiquitous and generic part of the language and has hence been constructively abandoned to public use.”
The consequences of the ruling for the company are many. Not only will the corporation lose its most important entertainment property, but it is also likely to face heady estate taxes as it struggles to recharacterize itself as a trustee of Oprah’s estate. The company will also face complex and contested probate proceedings, including a number of unconsolidated class-action claims by bearers of the “O Chromosome” that their genetic relation to the star entitles them to a slice of the estate.
The company, further, must “write down” the portion of its assets attributable to the Oprah brand, a move sure to decimate the company’s market capitalization. “Most of these celebrity corporations carry a huge amount of goodwill on the books,” explains Jupiter Analyst Amanda Freeh. “That goodwill represents the value of celebrity. It’s typically the firm’s chief asset. If you lose it, the market will come after you with a vengeance.”
Reaction outside the financial community was more positive, with votes of support and sympathy pouring into Oprah’s Chicago headquarters. Speaking at a candlelight vigil outside the headquarters, Geraldine Creak, Oprah CEO and author of ‘Awaken the Corporation Within,’ remembered Oprah fondly, and called for fans to “Buy and Hold the Oprah within” and to continue to pursue an “IPO of the Spirit.”