Martha Hart vs. The WWE - Bitter Widow or Corporate Exploitation of Deceased Talent?
In the midst of one of the most popular eras of professional wrestling history, one man was the anti-hero. This man stood up for what's right, despite the world around him being so wrong. He went against the grain for the greater good, despite what anyone thought, and was so strong-willed in his beliefs that he was willing to give up anything for them. This man was not Stone Cold Steve Austin. This man was Owen Hart.
Owen Hart began his wrestling career in the era of Hulk, but within years, he was emersed in an era of Attitude. While others used nudity, swearing, weaponry, and vulgarity of any kind to gain popularity, Hart was steadfast in his belief that the WWE was going in the wrong direction. His refusal to conform to the Attitude Era came to a head when he was asked to partake in a storyline with his partner Jeff Jarrett's valet, Debra. The idea was presented that Hart become enamored with the voluptuous valet, but Hart was steady in his belief that presenting himself clamoring over a woman not his wife would be an improper image for his young children. This refusal led to Owen playing the Blue Blazer, a superhero telling people to do all the right things, but in an era where wrong is right, was booed like a Yankee at Fenway park. Despite being riddled with a ridiculous gimmick, Hart was still succeeding, and on May 23, 1999, he was slated to beat The Godfather for the intercontinental title. However, to do this, he had to descend upon the arena in superhero fashion, something the acrophobic Hart was not excited about. Unfortunately, wrestling fans know that this stunt led to the untimely death of Owen Hart. This tragic accident may have been the worst in wrestling history, and as such, Owen's widow, Martha, received a large settlement from the WWE after over a year of negotiations in a wrongful death suit. Eleven years later, Martha is again making news in regards to her late husband.
This past week, a report surfaced stating that Martha Hart is again suing the WWE. Her complaint "alleges that the WWE and the McMahons used Owen Hart's name and likeness without right in dozens of commercial videos and other materials, violated a contract restricting the use of Owen Hart's name, likeness and wrestling footage, and disregarded Martha Hart's wishes against further association of her late husband's name with WWE following his death." The apparant final straw was the release of the Hart family DVD in April, an act Hart feels is exploitation of her husband's likeness and goes against her wishes of being completely dissociated from the WWE. In order to fully understand her stance, we must first look at this case from a legal perspective.
In 2000, Martha Hart and the WWE settled on Martha's wrongful death lawsuit for 18 million dollars. This suit apparently included a clause referring to Owen Hart's likeness, its ownership, and WWE's right to anything related to Owen Hart. This is the primary issue 10 years later, as apparently WWE has violated this agreement knowingly and is subject to punishment according to Mrs. Hart. Since no one has seen the exact verbiage to the original agreement, we must speculate as to how it reads and draw our conclusions as such.
When it comes to an individual's likeness, there are 2 ways that this can apply legally. The first is personal likeness, referring to the personal life of an individual. The second is professional likeness which refers to the person as it pertains to their position as a professional. In Owen Hart's case, his personal likeness would refer to, in reference to WWE, his personal photo albums, home movies, writings, etc. His professional likeness would refer to Owen Hart the wrestler. As WWE generally owns the likeness to their performers, this usually means the namesake, moveset, and footage of the individual as performed in the WWE are intellectual property of the WWE in reflection to the contract signed by a performer upon joining the company. With Owen Hart, his ring name is his birth name, so the intellectual property of his name belongs to him, but as an employee, intellectual property of his Blue Blazer character, his footage, and everything in regards to his performances belong to WWE. What remains unclear is whether the lawsuit of 2000 gave all intellectual property of Owen Hart in regards to his WWF (WWE) personality to Mrs. Hart or whether WWE maintained Hart's professional property and Mrs. Hart is unclear of the discrepancy. The interpretation of this key issue will decide this case's fate, but to wrestling fans who grew up watching Owen Hart, the decision is meaningless. Many would concur and side with Owen's brother Bret in believing that Mrs. Hart is doing a disservice to everyone but herself in distancing her family from WWE and trying to rid the world of Owen Hart's likeness as a wrestler. I am one of those people.
Though it is not healthy to live in "what ifs", I often wonder how Mrs. Hart would feel about the WWE had her husband never taken that fatal fall. If Owen Hart continued to wrestle for a couple more years, retiring before age 40 with sufficient funds to support his family, would his wife still feel the way she does today? Mind you, this is a woman who claims that Owen disliked wrestling, dreamed of the day he could leave, and thought more of opening a shop than he ever did of lacing up the boots. All these ideas came from Mrs. Hart's mouth after the death of her husband, so absolutely none of it is from the mouth of Owen himself. Though Owen did speak of walking away at a young age, he took pride in every appearance he made and strived to be the best every time he appeared. Coming from the fabled Hart family, anything less that a perfect performance would have been unacceptable. Still, this desire to excel is what provide a means to an end for the Hart family, and Owen was primed to walk away before he was too old and brittle to appreciate life outside the thing. I'm sure that if her husband retired with the ability to still support his family, Mrs. Hart would be on her hands and knees thanking the WWE for giving him the opportunity to do so.
I am not insensitive and I do know that circumstances changed when Owen plummeted those 78 feet from the rafters. Even as a fan, that was hard to swallow, so I can only imagine how difficult it was for Mrs. Hart to lose her husband in that way. Even more difficult I'm sure, was the decision to continue the Pay Per View knowing that Owen was in grave danger of losing his life. This decision has been debated for years, and I'm sure Mrs. Hart felt that it was unfitting given the circumstances. That anger is justified, but it probably caused Hart and her children to miss Raw the next night, which was one of the most touching tribute shows ever put together. Had she stopped and watched, she might have appreciated what Owen meant to the wrestling community, and specifically to the WWE. What she might have seen was that her husband was more than just a wrestler in a smut-peddling era, he was someone who was loved and appreciated by everyone for his abilities inside the ring and his sense of humor outside of it.
What beguiles me is that we are still talking about this issue 11 years later. The court case 10 years ago should have settled things. As I mentioned, there is certainly a discrepancy over who owns Owen's professional likeness rights, but why should Owen's wife want them in the first place? Even a year after his death, I would hope that the grieving process led Mrs. Hart to realize how important Owen was to his friends in the locker room as well as the millions of fans who, whether heel or babyface, were always appreciative of Owen Hart the performer. It appears that Mrs. Hart didn't come to that realization then, and she still hasn't come to it now. She is still steadfast on removing any association her family has to wrestling, as she still is looking to remove an image that will never leave her, and still trying to protect her children who are just a mouse click away from finding the truth about their father anyway.
To add insult to injury, removing her family from ties to the WWE also means removing her family from family. What Mrs. Hart has done is isolated herself from the wrestling dynasty that is the Hart family. Owen's best friend and brother Bret recently wrote that he has not talked to Martha in 10 years because of her handlings of this situation, and since Bret appears to be on good terms with most of the rest of his brothers and sisters (check out Wrestlemania, most of them are there!), it wouldn't be ridiculous to infer that those siblings are also not in contact with the wife of their youngest brother. Thus, the real sufferers are her children, who are missing out on precious childhood memories with their aunts, uncles, and cousins. It is a shame for any child to not meet family, but going a step further, I'm sure Mrs. Hart does not want her prized children to lay eyes on or, heaven forbid, be proud of their cousins Harry and Natalie, who made their dreams come true and wrestle as DH Smith and Natalya respectively. Surely, seeing family success and happiness is forbidden in Martha Hart's house, because in her view, these people are not respecting her wishes, which she has somehow convinced herself would be Owen's wishes.
I cannot see beyond the grave, but I somehow fail to believe that Owen would be supportive of his wife's decisions since his passing. I believe Owen to be someone who was very appreciative of everything he accomplished, and I think he'd be proud to show his children and his fans some of his greatest achievements in wrestling. It is a travesty that Mrs. Hart is trying to take that away from everyone, regardless of whether the law is on her side. I wish Mrs. Hart would have watched Raw about 4 months ago. On one particular episode, Owen's brother Bret was cutting a promo about family, and he opened his jacket to reveal a t-shirt of him and Owen horsing around. Upon seeing this shirt, the crowd erupted into an "Owen! Owen! Owen!" chant, the volume of which could match any rock concert. If Mrs. Hart opened her eyes, ears, and heart, she would see that her husband made an impact on so many lives, and her battles are only serving to make her public enemy #1 in the wrestling community. What she needs to see is that no one is looking to shamelessly use her husband's image for a quick buck. The WWE has only used his image in times where it is necessary. It would be ridiculous to talk about great Wrestlemania matches without mentioning Owen's victory over Bret at Wrestlemania X. And it would be absolutely insane for the WWE to produce a DVD as they did recently about the Hart family without including one of the key members of the family, Owen. I have seen the DVD, and it does nothing but put Owen on a pedestal. The WWE was looking to finally pay tribute to a great wrestling family, one Owen was proud to be a part of and to represent. Mrs. Hart feels like this is exploitation because she has asked for Owen to never be so much as mentioned by WWE. Unfortunately, Mrs. Hart's wish will never be granted, despite what the court may rule, because the WWE universe will NEVER forget Owen Hart. This WWE universe LOVES Owen Hart. Perhaps Martha should open her eyes to this and see that she was lucky enough to be married to a man who had a profound impact on so many. Perhaps she'd see that any time WWE uses his image, it's not shameless exploitation, but a fitting tribute to a wonderful performer and man. Maybe then she could open her heart and let the world appreciate Owen Hart, not try and erase him from everyone's memory. Perhaps she will finally see that the world is merely trying to love and appreciate the memory of her husband. I suggest she erase the bitterness, open her heart, and do the same.