Dead Celebrities and the Profit Motive: An Ethics Primer

Photograph by Xinhua/eyevine/Redux

When a beloved pop diva like Whitney Houston dies, when is it fair game for a Sony or a Warner Bros. to protect their investments in her music and film catalogs? In cold business terms, the first year of a celebrity’s death can be a sales bonanza if managed right. What’s the wrong way? Well, Sony Music’s decision to hike the prices of two Houston compilations—The Ultimate Collection and The Greatest Hits—on the U.K. iTunes site just hours after the singer died on Feb. 4 set off a firestorm on Twitter and Facebook. Sony quickly reversed course and issued an apology. On Feb. 21 an erroneous blog post reporting Warner Bros. had pulled Netflix’s streaming rights to Houston’s 1992 movie The Bodyguard in order to steer mourning fans to the more expensive DVD version also lit up the Web. (Warner Bros. is releasing a new Blu-ray version of the movie on March 27.) Turns out managing dead celebrities is a tricky business.

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