Bob Marley, Pop Culture, Image Rights, and Contested Legacy

There is only a handful of icons whose images have reached transcendence in pop culture. These include Albert Einstein, John Lennon, Che Guevera, Marilyn Monroe, and, most certainly, Bob Marley. By transcendence, we mean the ability to go beyond, almost reaching a point of universal recognition. Albert Einstein is a good example. The celebrated scientist is also a pop culture icon. His image, used in everything from t-shirts to television advertising, is a multi-million-dollar asset and one that is subject to intense legal debate. Einstein, the man, isn’t a pop culture figure, of course. Most of us wouldn’t have the first clue about his personal life, not to mention his work in physics. That’s what we mean by transcendence.

Bob Marley, too, is an interesting case study. As most of us are, at least, somewhat aware of his music, it’s not as if his image as a pop culture icon is, like Einstein, a little out of context. But what we are getting at here with Marley, as well as others mentioned above, is a kind of universality. When you see his image on a t-shirt, coffee cup, a beach towel, or even a wall mural, it does not feel the same as it would if you see, say, the image of Taylor Swift. It feels more natural, as Marley’s image has achieved the kind of transcendence we are talking about.

Marley’s influence is felt everywhere

Of course, Marley’s influence is felt in other ways. It is difficult to disassociate him from reggae music and Rastafarian culture. His influence in those areas is ubiquitous, even when the references to him are indirect. For example, an online game like Bob’s Coffee Shop is not directly based on Marley, but his influence on it is plain to see in the animations and music. There are countless other examples.

Yet, the “official” image of Marley is as much a commodity as his music. As we mentioned earlier about Einstein, the use of those images is highly contested, understandable when vast sums of money are involved. Marley, too, is the subject of interesting legal battles over his image. A famous court battle took place in Jamaica some 25 years ago – The Robert Marley Foundation v. Dino Michelle Limited. Effectively, the former (Marley’s family and estate) argued that Marley had a right to have his image protected, even after his death. The case and surrounding arguments are sometimes referred to as “Protecting Bob Marley’s Face”.

Marley’s Estate focuses on charity

While most of us are comfortable with the rights of a family to monetize and protect the imagery of their famous relative, with Marley and others mentioned above, there is a sense of fair game because it feels like his image is in the public domain. As we said earlier, there is a universality about Marley, and that makes us feel he belongs to everyone. It’s the reason that so many of these cases go to court– because those using the image without permission believe they have a right to do so.

For those who believe the Marley Family is being unjust in these scenarios, it should be pointed out that theyintend to do good with the monetization of his image, supporting charities, such as the One Tree Planted charity. Much of this has been handled by the House of Marley, the audio hardware company that uses Marley’s image in its branding.

To say that Marley’s image and legacy are powerful is something of an understatement. Consider the buzz created by Ajax Amsterdam FC when it created the “Bob Marley Kit” (with the blessing of the Marley Family), or the fact the estate is estimated to be worth up to $500 million. The music came first, of course, and it still does. But Marley’s legacy as a pup culture icon transcends music. He, like only a handful of others, is a universal icon.