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10 Shameful Ways People Cheapened Important Legacies

Morris M.


When a great leader dies, or a civilization falls, or an artist breathes their last, the one guaranteed thing on everyone’s minds is their legacy. Usually, this involves academics debating their life’s work, or their survivors setting up a trust to honor their memory. Less frequently, it involves abusing that memory so badly it ends up detracting from everything they did.

10Nelson Mandela’s Family Turned Him Into A Corporate Mascot


When Nelson Mandela died in late 2013, it triggered an outpouring of grief that shook the world. Here was a man who had changed history, who had stood up for democracy in the face of decades of repression. His death ensured Mandela’s name would forever mean “freedom.” His family had other ideas. They wanted Mandela’s name to live forever as a byword for tacky memorabilia.

Even before Mandela’s death, some of his children and grandchildren had started using his name to sell merchandise. When he died, the process went supernova. Mandela’s name and image are now attached to everything from T-shirts emblazoned with his prison number to baseball caps showing his face to a range of mid-priced table wines (despite Mandela’s stated wish that he never be associated with alcohol or tobacco). At one point there was even a Mandela-themed reality TV show.

Perhaps more concerning is the effort two family members have been making to remove anti-apartheid activists from the Nelson Mandela Trust’s board to consolidate their hold on his brand. Their rationale is that everything Mandela did was with the goal of providing for his family. That’s a kick in the teeth to everyone who thought his actions had more to do with democracy and human rights.



9The Andy Warhol Foundation Approved Dozens Of Forgeries

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Photo credit: Jack Mitchell

Depending on your point of view, Andy Warhol is either the very best or the very worst thing to ever happen to art. There’s no denying that he’s one of the most important. His prints of soup cans and celebrities are some of the most recognizable artworks on Earth, and his stuff routinely sells for millions of dollars. And yet some of the pieces are most likely forgeries.

In 2013, it emerged that the foundation Andy Warhol set up to manage his posthumous reputation had long ago ditched its stated goals in favor of making tons of cash. Its board members achieved this through creative accounting and giving less to charitable causes than the Foundation was required to. They also did this by selling forgeries that had been seized from the studio of one of Warhol’s acquaintances. After declaring the pieces fakes and calling the signatures “shaky,” it’s been alleged that the Foundation later sold them anyway, purely to make a profit for its trustees.

Although Andy Warhol was undoubtedly interested in making money, even he would likely be shocked by the lengths his foundation has gone to. In a lawsuit against the foundation, the Attorney General’s Office claimed they were acting to protect “the national treasure of Andy Warhol’s artistic legacy.”

8Stieg Larsson’s Family Hired A Hack To Finish His Books


Best-selling author Stieg Larsson left behind a mere three books when he died of a heart attack at age 50. Although he’d had a series of 10 planned, the completed Millennium trilogy managed to form a pleasing whole, bringing the story of hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist to a close.

At least, it did until word got out that a half-finished fourth book was among Larsson’s possessions. Some of it was already written, and notes indicated how the story would progress. With the right scholar or a great crime writer at the helm, a respectful version might even be finished. Instead, his family hired a guy known for soccer biographies to finish the job. On a literary level, it was like hiring an ESPN columnist to edit J.D. Salinger.

It also made Larsson’s 30-year partner Eva Gabrielsson furious. She claimed the new author, David Lagercrantz, was an awful choice, as he lacked Larsson’s activist credentials or commitment to feminism—something that played a massive part in the writing of the Millennium trilogy. Her protests had no effect. Under Swedish law, all of the unmarried Larsson’s intellectual property passed to his family when he died, leaving Gabrielsson unable to influence legacy decisions.



7Bach’s Alcoholic Son Pawned His Father’s Manuscripts

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Photo via Wikimedia

Johann Sebastian Bach has a good claim to being the greatest musician who ever lived. We’re still listening to his music and studying his roughly 1,000 compositions 265 years after his death. At this point, it’s clear his legacy is largely intact, but that’s no thanks to the best efforts of one of his sons. Upon inheriting half of his father’s work in 1750 (the other half went to a brother), the alcoholic composer Wilhelm Friedemann Bach proceeded to lose or pawn off nearly all of it.

At the time, Bach was far from being the titan of music he’s known as today. Nonetheless, he was respected enough for son C.P.E. Bach to consider it worth preserving and publishing his half of his father’s inheritance. Unfortunately, Wilhelm had more pressing problems of his own to worry about. At the time of the elder Bach’s death, Wilhelm was descending into paranoia and drunkenness, which in turn led to crippling poverty. Faced with a choice between sacrificing his inheritance or being penniless, he chose to kick his father’s reputation in the teeth. Although most of Bach’s compositions are today available, a small number remain missing.

6The Repeated Attempts To Make A GDR Theme Park

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Photo credit: Kwerti/Wikimedia

Ideologies such as Nazism and Communism have left their mark on world history, and it’s only fitting that sites such as Auschwitz and the monument to Ukraine’s Holodomor commemorate this. Unfortunately, plenty of former East Germans failed to get the memo. Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to turn the Stasi’s legacy of terror and torture into a theme park.

In the years after the Berlin Wall fell, one-time GDR residents began to experience ostalgie—nostalgia for the Communist years. It started with people selling foods you used to get under the dictatorship, before expanding to tacky Marx T-shirts and GDR condoms. Things finally reached their nadir in 2003, when a developer proposed a theme park modeled on life in East Berlin. Visitors would have to pass through a border control zone to get in, where they would be monitored by Stasi agents in what the LA Times called “a sort of kitschy version of a spy novel scoured of the real-life oppression that permeated the former Soviet bloc.”

Although the plan was eventually ditched, that didn’t stop others from jumping on the ostalgie bandwagon. In 2004, the New York Times reported on a German investor who had bought up a former Stasi prison with the intention of turning it into a GDR-themed hotel. Guests would spend the night on cold floors, be fed awful food, and be forced to wear uniforms to get the full “inmate experience.” Protests by former prisoners stopped the project from ever going ahead.

5James Joyce’s Grandson Tries To Sue Everyone

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One of the most admired writers of his generation, James Joyce wrote novels so multi-layered and occasionally unreadable that most of them cry out for serious study. Yet for years, academic research into Joyce was severely hampered because his grandson would sue anyone who wrote anything about him.

In 1982, Stephen James Joyce inherited the Joyce estate and copyright of his grandfather’s works. Stung by a recent biography that printed James Joyce’s saucy letters to his wife, he quickly established what became known as a “copyright dictatorship.” Writers and academics were sued for millions of dollars to stop them publishing new books about Joyce. Anyone who wanted to quote even a fragment of Ulysses could find themselves tied up in a legal nightmare. When the Irish government tried to stage public readings and exhibitions to celebrate 2004’s Bloomsday (June 16, the date when Ulysses is set), Stephen threatened to sue them, causing Ireland to pass an emergency law preventing him from doing so.

At times, the lawsuits became farcical. Performance artist Adam Harvey once memorized a passage of Finnegans Wake, only to receive an aggressive letter from Stephen claiming he’d already infringed copyright. (He hadn’t.) For three decades, Stephen single-handedly destroyed Joyce scholarship, stopping a serious appraisal of his grandfather’s works. Finally, in 2012, the estate’s copyright expired. It’s now legally possible to film yourself reciting Ulysses (without getting sued) and email the video to Stephen—just to annoy him.



4Tintin’s Copyright Holders Are Really, Really Weird

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Photo credit: Belamp/Wikimedia

When Georges Remi (aka Herge) died in 1983, he left behind one of the most popular comic book series on Earth. The Tintin books have all shifted millions of copies and provided the basis for a well-received Spielberg film. But lately, Belgian fans have been increasingly worried about Herge’s legacy. The people now in charge of Tintin’s copyright are both incredibly litigious and a little odd.

After Herge shuffled off to the great cartoonist’s desk in the sky, the rights to his work passed on to his mistress-turned-wife Fanny Vlamynck. She, in turn, placed them under the care of the man she was seeing, English shop owner Nick Rodwell. Since 1990, all decisions concerning Tintin have gone through him, leading to some very strange moments. A couple of years ago, Rodwell started a blog on the official Tintin website. It quickly descended into a series of vicious attacks on journalists he hated. In one post, he accused a French journalist of having a “sexual problem” in her youth. In another, he tauntingly referred to a journalist’s autistic child. In another, he made sly remarks about a critic being a widower.

Then you have the blacklist Rodwell allegedly keeps, forbidding anyone on it to reproduce images of Tintin. Or the time Rodwell sued a Tintin fan for writing five essays on the character, which were only distributed to 300–500 friends and colleagues. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Rodwell’s been called the “most hated figure in publishing.”

3The Tacky Merchandise Of 9/11

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When two planes slammed into the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11, everyone knew the moment would go down in history. We just didn’t expect it to happen thanks to the legions of merchandisers who would co-opt that day’s dreadful legacy.

Over the years, their items have done their absolute best to water down the sense of tragedy felt by millions. Coffee mugs that cost $50, commemorative mailboxes for $12,000, “Never Forget” ties, 9/11 wedding cake toppers, and Twin Towers boxer shorts have all appeared online over the years, making a few very rich. It’s even possible to buy 9/11 commemorative wine for $19.11—a price tag that both pays tribute and adds an extra 10 dollars to the seller’s pocket. That’s before we get on to the advertisers using a national tragedy to sell stuff like mattresses.

Meanwhile, at the gift shop at the recently opened National September 11 Memorial Museum, the organizers were clearly just trying to help fund the memorial’s upkeep. But the seemingly insensitive inclusion of stuff like coffee mugs and key rings seriously offended the families of the victims.

2Sony Enforces Copyright On King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ Speech

Every now and then comes a speech that defines our history. The Gettysburg address is one example. Winston Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches” speech is another. Perhaps the most important of all is Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Delivered on August 28, 1963, it promised a future of equality, a future of common ground between races, a future open to everyone. Sony responded by suing anyone who uses it.

After his death in 1968, the copyright to King’s works fell to his family. They became incredibly litigious, suing anyone who reprinted his words without their permission. This would be bad enough, but in 2009, they entered into a contract with EMI Publishing (part of Sony) over the copyright of the “I have a dream” speech. The way EMI and King’s family have since abused the speech is legendary. Sympathetic documentaries on the Civil Rights era have been refused permission to use it, while French company Alcatel received permission to use King’s words to advertise their Internet service.

Thanks to EMI’s lawsuits, it’s now almost impossible to find the whole speech online. If you want to hear it in full, you need to pay $20. As one of King’s associates told 60 Minutes in 2001, “[King] attempted his entire life to communicate ideas for free. To communicate, not to sell.”

1Franklin Mint Sues Princess Diana’s Charity For Tacky Reasons

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Photo credit: Franklin Mint

Unlike most on our list, merchants Franklin Mint were never given permission to run Princess Diana’s legacy. That fell to the Princess Diana Memorial Fund, a charity set up after her death in 1997 to continue her good work around the world. Although the fund held the rights to everything Diana-themed, Franklin Mint nonetheless tried to sell and profit from Diana dolls without permission. The fund responded by suing them. At which point, reality went nuts.

Under a technicality of Californian law, the fund was unable to stop Franklin Mint from making the dolls. Franklin Mint then countersued the charity for malicious prosecution. Eventually, the fund was forced to settle out of court for £13.5 million.

To be clear, Franklin Mint had no more right to Diana’s image than you do. They were expressly forbidden by the fund to sell dolls of her for profit. Yet they somehow wound up not just gaining the right to sell Diana-themed goods but also destroying the charity that originally held those rights. The fund’s charity work was badly damaged by the lawsuit, and it affected the work of 127 projects worldwide—all so Franklin Mint could continue to produce the tackiest trash in the whole of America.

Morris M.

Morris is a freelance writer and newly-qualified teacher, still naively hoping to make a difference in his students' lives. You can send your helpful and less-than-helpful comments to his email, or visit some of the other websites that inexplicably hire him.

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