LOS ANGELES — For someone trying to sell a book, it couldn’t get much better than this: Oprah Winfrey, the nation’s reader-in-chief, was holding up a glossy volume of Michael Jackson photographs for her vast television audience while tossing softball questions to its co-author, the late singer’s 80-year-old mother.
The gauzily shot moment of marketing gold last month was not the work of the official Jackson estate but of a little-known Toronto businessman, Howard Mann, a brash, goateed 38-year-old who cut his teeth in the titillation trade — nude online gambling, a naked women’s wrestling league — and is now pursuing an unorthodox plan to profit from what he calls “the most valuable name in history.”
That plan is a direct challenge to the Jackson estate, the behemoth quasi-corporation whose carefully strategized promotion of the pop star’s legacy and ironhanded crackdown on unlicensed merchandise have translated into hundreds of millions in posthumous earnings. The brewing fight between the estate and Mann is the latest wrinkle in the settling of his affairs and another reminder that even in death, nothing involving the King of Pop is ever simple.
Mann is taking on the estate armed with two weapons — a legal loophole that he says gives him carte blanche to flout intellectual property laws, and an unlikely alliance with Jackson’s mother, Katherine. Frustrated with the size of her allowance from the estate, the family matriarch has entered into a business partnership with Mann in which she has given her blessing to the book and other projects and he has paid her what he said was “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
“I’m very pleased working with Howard. He’s been very good to me,” she said recently.
These joint endeavors are becoming a headache for estate administrators, who seem reticent to offend Katherine Jackson, the guardian of the singer’s three children and a much admired figure to fans. A lawyer for the estate dismissed Mann’s novel legal theory as flawed, but the administrators have not moved to stop sales of his unauthorized Jackson products as they have others who tried to cash in on Jackson’s name or likeness. For the past five months, the estate has sat silent as Mann’s company, Vintage Pop Media, has touted its ownership of a trove of Jackson memorabilia — photos, personal papers, costumes and music — and hawked the book, calendars and other items on its website.
Asked to explain, the estate’s lawyer, Howard Weitzman, said of Mann: “His day is coming. The estate will be taking appropriate legal action.”
In the scope of the Jackson empire, with its $273-million deal with Sony and the $260-million concert movie, Mann’s ventures — the $39.99 book and the $27.98 calendar — are small-time. However, his projects have hit a nerve in the delicate relationship between Jackson’s beloved mother and the two music veterans he tapped in his will to control his business affairs.
Under the terms of a private trust set up by the will, the singer’s children and his mother each get a 40 percent share of the trust with the remainder going to charity. Upon Katherine Jackson’s death, her portion passes to the children. Jackson owed creditors about half a billion dollars at the time of his death. The estate remains in the red although massive music and merchandise deals as well as financial restructuring have significantly reduced the debt.
In a telephone interview, Katherine Jackson praised administrators John Branca and John McClain for doing “a very good job” managing the estate but criticized her monthly cash allowance of $7,000 to $8,000 as inadequate and said it left her dependent on Mann to cover her expenses.
“I wish they would leave Howard alone and I wish they would leave me alone for working with Howard. I’m not greedy like people say. It’s need, not greed,” she said.
The estate disputes the suggestion that administrators are not meeting her living expenses. Weitzman, the lawyer, noted that the allowance was approved by a probate judge and said the cash payments were only one aspect of the financial support that administrators provided. The estate also paid off the mortgage on the family home in Encino and foots the bill for household staff, security, vehicles, food, tuition and vacations.
“The estate has spent millions of dollars for Mrs. Jackson’s benefit and on the direct living expenses of both Mrs. Jackson and the children,” Weitzman said.
But for Katherine Jackson, it is not enough. “I think I should be getting more,” she said. She declined to specify why she needed the money. Her husband, Joe, sought an allowance from the court but was denied. Several other grandchildren also reside at the family home.
Finances were on her mind a few months after her son’s death when she was approached by Mann.
The business partners seem an odd pair: Katherine Jackson is a devout Jehovah’s Witness while much of Mann’s resume is X-rated. Mann was the former chief executive of an online gambling site that featured topless porn stars as dealers and also headed up the Naked Women’s Wrestling League, an outfit that made its biggest headlines when it was sued by its hostess, Carmen Electra.
But when Mann introduced himself to Katherine Jackson a few months after her son’s June 2009 death, he offered her two things she wanted: money and the opportunity to protect her son’s reputation from yet another damaging press report.
Both stemmed from his purchase of an enormous memorabilia collection that Jackson’s parents had originally assembled for a planned family museum. Katherine and Joe Jackson subsequently developed financial problems and the collection was sold at a 2001 bankruptcy auction. Eventually, the memorabilia came into the possession of a New Jersey construction company owner, Henry Vaccaro Sr., who set up a pay-per-view website to profit from the material.
Michael Jackson sued Vaccaro and his company, Vintage Pop, for copyright infringement, cybersquatting, violation of his privacy rights and other claims in 2004, but the next year after his acquittal on child molestation charges, he decamped to Bahrain, refused to submit to a deposition and stopped paying his lawyers.
A federal judge dismissed the case in 2006 “with prejudice” — meaning the singer was barred from refiling the same claims.
After Jackson’s death, word that Vaccaro was trying to sell the collection reached Mann. He wasn’t a fan of Jackson’s music, but he had previously considered purchasing a music catalog of early Jackson 5 recordings and he saw investment potential in the warehouse of old costumes, yellowing papers, artwork, pictures and recordings. When he looked closer, however, he concluded that the most valuable thing Vintage Pop had was not a particular piece of memorabilia but the court decision.
As Mann saw it, whoever owned the company Jackson had sued, Vintage Pop, was forever immunized against intellectual property suits from Jackson or his heirs and had free rein to make money from Jackson’s name.
“This is effectively a satellite estate. Its value is unfathomable,” Mann said.
Vaccaro and his family were stunned by his assessment of the judge’s declaration.
“We were thinking all this stuff, that’s the golden goose, the last thing we were thinking was this piece of paper,” recalled Vaccaro’s son-in-law, Mark Bahary, who was involved in the negotiations. In return, Vaccaro got an undisclosed amount of money and a slice of the profits.
Mann’s theory hasn’t been tested in court, but Loyola Law School professor Georgene Vairo said that from a civil procedure standpoint, Mann appears to be on solid legal ground.
“It’s kind of like the civil equivalent of double jeopardy. You get one bite at the apple and that is it,” said Vairo, a civil procedure expert. She said that by abandoning the case, Jackson “essentially forfeited his intellectual property.”
“The law is rather unforgiving. (Estate lawyers) can argue that there is some reason why there should be a departure from the normal rule we’d apply, but they are going to have a tough row to hoe,” she said.
Weitzman, the lawyer for the estate, said he disagreed with Mann’s analysis but declined to elaborate.
After buying Vintage Pop, Mann approached Katherine Jackson to seek the family approval he felt was necessary before trying to sell merchandise to fans.
He said he told her that he could provide regular cash payments with more ease than the estate, which was encumbered by her son’s debt.
He also told her that a British tabloid was offering him “seven figures” for a “particular item” from the memorabilia locker. Mann declined to identify the item or the publication but said it was clear the paper’s goal was to smear Jackson’s memory.
At the family’s request, he destroyed the item and returned a box of other personal items to the family.
“He was nice enough to come to me with those things and I really appreciated what he did,” Katherine Jackson recalled.
The relationship has not been without missteps. This fall, Vintage Pop gave the gossip site TMZ a track from the memorabilia locker that the site advertised as never before released. It turned out to be a remix of an old Jacksons track, “Destiny.” The fan backlash was swift and brutal, and Mann had to issue an apology.
In addition to the book and other merchandise, Mann is working on a documentary based on 26 hours of Jackson family videotapes from the memorabilia locker. He is also planning a music-sharing site where users can remix some of the 273 Jackson music tracks from the memorabilia he bought.
“Long term, we believe the fan is going to want to buy the product that his mother feels is worthy to have his name attached,” Mann said.