Culture Counsel is a monthly column focusing on the intricacies of law through the lens of pop culture and business.
With the announcement that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will step back from royal life, the world has been waiting with bated breath to see how they will settle into their new lives in Canada. Having tested the royal life as a married couple, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex issued a statement on January 9, 2020 that they are stepping back as senior members of Britain’s Royal Family and will “work to become financially independent”, splitting their time between North America and the United Kingdom. Any savvy lawyer’s first thought after reading the official statement was: there’s going to be whole lot of intense negotiations coming up.
As private citizens who have a public reputation that are about to become financially independent, the easiest financial coup will be for Meghan and Harry to trade on their public persona. In an instant, with the issuance of their official statement, they will become the world’s ultimate influencers. As with any celebrity monetizing their brand, strategy is key, which is rooted in law. Separate and apart, they each have their own established personal brands. There will be immediate opportunities for monetization: speaking engagements, brand ambassador positions, merchandising opportunities. The world is their oyster. It will be at their discretion to determine which of the funds are for personal profit and which are for charitable donations.
In transitioning to private citizens that are capitalizing on their fame, there is somewhat of an established formula to monetizing personal brands. The crux of the celebrity brand, as an asset that is capable of monetization, is based in law. When monetizing public reputation, it is important to remember that the celebrity and his/her persona (which are inextricably combined) are, in fact, a brand. Monetization of that brand comes through intellectual property protection and subsequent licensing deals. Indeed, any successful celebrity brand is rooted in a combination of trademark rights, copyrights, personality rights, licensing grants, compliance with marketing legislation, and contract law. This is a legal formula we have seen with many successful celebrities.
Interestingly, as a combined force, there are already indications that Meghan and Harry intend to monetize their collective brand under the trademark SUSSEX ROYAL. Prior to their surprise announcement, the ex-royal couple set up a charitable foundation from which they would operate called Sussex Royal the Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Currently, their foundation only owns two UK trademark applications (SUSSEX ROYAL and SUSSEX ROYAL THE FOUNDATION OF THE DUKE AND DUCHESS OF SUSSEX). In each instance, the scope of protection of the trademarks includes a myriad of various wares and services. This is a strategic play, which increases merchandising opportunities to generate more revenue. We have yet to see whether this strategy will come to fruition. We now know that the ex-royal couple will not balance a private and royal life. They will, in fact, be wholly deemed private citizens. Nor will they carry the HRH title. It is questionable whether they will be able to continue with their intended trademark brand: SUSSEX ROYAL. Given that a component of their intended trademark, ROYAL, directly links their brand to their royal past life, it is quite possible that this will be a continued point of negotiation with the Royal Family.
Truth be told, Meghan and Harry will be fine whether they use the SUSSEX ROYAL trademark or not. In the event that the Queen rejects their right to use SUSSEX ROYAL as a trademark for their private gain, it will not be determinative of commercial success for the ex-royal couple. Yes, there may be administrative hurdles as they switch over their Instagram handle and seek trademark protection for alternative brands, but they are currently the world’s most sought-after celebrity couple. Commercial opportunities will be plentiful for the ex-royal couple. However, as with every celebrity couple, the pros are balanced with the cons. With every commercial opportunity comes an invasion of privacy and mass speculation about their conduct. Private as they may be, in that they no longer represent the Crown, if they intend to monetize their fame, there will still be mass speculation over their conduct.
All in all, we wish them well and welcome them back to Canada.
Ashlee Froese is a branding, entertainment and fashion lawyer. She is the founder of Froese Law, which is an award-winning cross-border branding law firm that provides branding, business, contract, and intellectual property law services. Prior to launching Froese Law, Ashlee was a partner at a Bay Street law firm.