Today marks the release of probably the most anticipated video game of the year, Assassin’s Creed III. For those of you who complain that video games don’t teach kids anything, this game goes beyond what your history teachers taught you and tells the (not in any way) true story of how the Revolutionary War was pretty much single-handedly won by a half-Mohawk, half-English assassin named Ratonhnhaké:ton with an assist from his time travelling, modern day assassin descendant, Desmond Miles. According to a recent study, less than one-third of eighth graders could name an advantage the Americans had during the Revolutionary War. Sounds like that problem’s solved! (My heart goes out to our poor middle school history teachers after this game makes its way into the collective subconscious of our youth: “Well, Ms. Adams, as I just learned over fall break and as you probably already know, the Americans had a time-travelling assassin with sweet ninja skills on their side.”)
Part of the downloadable content for the game involves an alternative scenario in which our hero Ratonhnhaké:ton has to dethrone the tyrannical George Washington after he declares himself King George I of America following the war. Which got me thinking, “Hey, can they do that?” “That,” being use a historic figure in a bad light to make money for, in this case, the game-maker Ubisoft. As with most legal questions, the answer is “it depends.”
In George Washington’s case, there likely aren’t any descendants left to complain, so feel free to use him however you’d see fit (George Washington protective phone sock anyone?). The interesting cases occur with recently dead celebrities who do have living family members (or others to which the celebrity’s likeness was transferred). Some states, like California, which just passed its delightfully nicknamed “Dead Celebrities Bill,” offer substantial protection for dead celebrities’ likenesses (so I guess we’ll be spared a scenario where Micheal Jackson rules the United States with an iron fist after anointing himself the King of Pop). Other states, like the relatively celebrity-less North Dakota, appear not to offer much protection for the rights of its dead celebrities (we can look forward to the King Roger Maris scenario, I guess). Massachusetts, in an effort spearheaded by none other than Bill Cosby, appears ready to pass a law similar to California’s. So, I guess the lesson here is that if you’re famous and concerned about ending up as a ruthless dictator in a video game after your death, you might want to consider moving from Fargo to Fresno.