Light My Fire: The Doors' Royalties Never Seem To Burn Out 43 Years after Jim Morrison's Death

Light My Fire: The Doors' Royalties Never Seem To Burn Out 43 Years after Jim Morrison's Death

Lizard king’s last living heir is 90 years old now, reopening questions of who will eventually inherit his image and share of a musical dynasty that currently generates millions of dollars a year.

Even when rock stars create more-or-less conventional families, the lines of dynastic inheritance can still break down within a generation or two.

In theory, Jim Morrison, made the smart moves to ensure that his wealth – a “massive” $400,000 when he died in 1971 – transferred in an orderly fashion to his common-law wife Pamela Courson.

But because he and Courson died childless and she didn’t bother writing a will, control of his 25% stake in the Doors’ record sales and copyrights became contentious.

And now that the last of the first generation of caretakers is in her early 90s, the rights seem likely to accelerate their slide away from the people who knew and understood Morrison when he was alive.

The lesson for estate planners focused on the long term is clear: the first transfer is relatively easy to lock down, but the real work is in keeping things on track when the property shifts again decades down the road.

The truly long tail

Morrison’s lawyer is only accountable for part of the problem here.

Back in 1971, nobody predicted that the copyrights on the Doors song catalog would even still be an issue 43 years after the rock star himself was dead.

Under then-extant intellectual property law, Morrison’s lyrics would have stopped accruing royalties in 1996 and the challenge of assigning that income stream beyond that point would be academic.

However, unexpected extensions of the copyright period now mean that his literary estate remains active until at least 2041, which means putting plans in place to cover almost 40 years of further contingencies.

The legal landscape keeps changing, so the best an executor can really do is remain engaged and flexible enough to roll with unexpected developments.

A similar case can be made for the dynastic family as a moving target, and this is where Morrison should have gotten better advice.

His will left everything to Coulson, who only survived him by three years before a fatal overdose.

When her name showed up in Morrison’s will, his lawyer should have asked the follow-up questions: what happens if she dies, and does she have a will as well?

Evidently the conversation only got far enough to establish that if Coulson failed to outlive Morrison by longer than a few months, the songs and royalties they represent would revert to his brother and sister.

She survived long enough, so she inherited. But if anyone ever asked her about her own plans, nobody seems to have acted on the answers – the chain of succession died with her.
In the absence of a will, her parents inherited. His parents sued and received an ongoing stake in his legacy to ensure “parity.”

It’s clear from Morrison’s conscious decision to bypass his parents that he he didn’t want them to oversee his artistic posterity, while the Coulsons were practically strangers.

But because nobody sat down with Pamela before she died, those people ended up in control of his posthumous rights all the same.

Poetic justice or just random drift?

Doors devotees characterize Pamela’s father, who originally became artistic executor of the estate after she died, as the most eager to develop the Morrison mystique.

The Morrisons themselves seem to have been content to take a back seat and let the checks come in.

Either way, the only one of the original four parents left alive at this point is Coulson’s mother, Pearl.

She turns 91 in September, so the time left for her to weigh in on the estate is getting short. What happens when she dies?

Jim’s mom and dad have been gone since 2005 and 2008, respectively. Odds are good they bequeathed their share in the Doors to their surviving kids, which would mean the brother and sister are finally back in the loop.

On Pamela’s side, sister Judith is still alive and is likely to inherit when her mother dies.

However the beneficiaries weigh out, they’ll collectively be entitled to a 25% split of the Doors’ residual income streams alongside Robby Krieger, John Densmore and the late Ray Manzarek’s wife.

Based on a reported $3 million in annual record and download sales plus incidental publicity and memorabilia licensing, each quarter of the band may be worth $1 million a year at this point.

That’s not a tragedy, but as the slices get thinner, it becomes harder to align all the interests.

Krieger and Manzarek already alienated Densmore and the Morrison heirs by trying to cash in with a touring reunion act without consent from the other partners.

They were also eager to break Morrison’s long-standing edict against licensing the catalog to advertisers, even though the right commercial could easily quadruple or quintuple reported record sales revenue.

Apple and Mercedes were both interested in paying seven to eight figures for an ad, but both times the other partners shot the deal down as contrary to the band’s principles.

Does Jim Morrison’s sweetheart’s sister take his bohemian credo more seriously than cold hard cash? What about her kids, or his own nephews or nieces?

Sooner or later, the artistic vision that creates the music gets so diluted that entertainment becomes a business. When that happens here, you’ll hear “Riders on the Storm” and other songs used to sell cars and iPods.

And eventually, one or more interests will want to cash out for a lump sum. The more pieces the pie gets cut into, the harder it will be to negotiate a group deal – but it will get easier for an outsider to accumulate the rights piece by piece.

Unless members of the Morrison and Courson families make an effort to teach the heirs what the Lizard King wanted, he’s not going to get what he wanted.

Beyond the grave

Needless to say, Morrison could have exercised much stronger “dead hand” powers by putting his intellectual property into a trust.

That vehicle could have paid Pamela all of its income for as long as she was alive, but she wouldn’t have been able to direct its long-term strategy one way or another.

If Jim said his trust would always veto the rest of the band on licensing the songs, that’s what the trust would do.

And upon Pamela’s death, successor beneficiaries would be determined according to Jim’s dictates. Although we can’t know for sure, this would probably leave the income with his siblings today, bypassing both sets of parents and ultimately all of the Coursons.

The beneficiaries would be free to do as much or as little estate planning as they like in order to assign their own assets. The Doors lyrics would enjoy the closest thing to immortality the law allows.

And as the law changes, a well-constructed trust would be able to change with it while leaving its core mandate untouched.

If intellectual property protection stretches out even further, a Morrison trust would have the power to plan to be around in 2050 and beyond.

With the right trustees, the vehicle could also adapt to shifts in the marketing environment, sidestepping the land grab over “peripheral” merchandising that has troubled the Jimi Hendrix estate, for example.

There will probably be scenarios we don’t even know how to forecast yet, let alone manage. Jim Morrison couldn’t even see his wife’s death coming. A trust can evolve with the times.

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