One of the accidental side effects of the 2000 film remake Gone in 60 seconds it’s the enthusiastic interest in building an Eleanor Mustang. Another side effect is 18 years of lawsuits that may have come to a head this month thanks to a ruling that favored plaintiff Carroll Shelby Licensing over defendant Denice Shakarian Halicki. We’ll start with the conclusion and its meaning, and then present the short version of the story. Halicki has held an intellectual property copyright to Eleanor Mustang from the 2000 film starring Nicholas Cage since 2008. Reversing an earlier decision, the United States District Court for the Central District of California ruled that the vehicle cannot be copyrighted as IP . That means now anyone can build their own version of the Eleanor Mustang and name it Eleanor, and Shelby Licensing can partner with companies that want to build an Eleanor with Shelby American’s blessing.
We will tell a short version of how we got here. It begins with Henry Blight “Toby” Halicki, who made the original Gone in 60 Seconds in 1974. While working on its 1989 remake, he died in a stunt gone wrong. Toby had married Denice three months before he died; one of the items he kept on the estate was the naming rights to the film Gone in 60 seconds. In 1995, he made a deal with Hollywood Pictures to do a big-budget reboot, which came out in 2000, his flagship car was called the 1967 Shelby GT500. He didn’t apply to register the car, but in 2002 Carroll Shelby did it. He acquired the Eleanor Mustang trademark in the remake and entered into a licensing agreement with a Texas builder to make replicas. Halicki sued Shelby in 2004, and after four years of legal wrangling, a 2008 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in California and an agreement with Shelby granted her the exclusive copyright to Eleanor Mustang. Her lawyers have tried to go further, one told Al Los Angeles Times which Halicki owned the copyright whatever vehicle named Eleanor. “It doesn’t matter if it was a bus named Eleanor,” she said. “Magic was the name, and that was the thing [Shelby] tried to get.” Incidentally, one automotive historian told the Times“The whole lawsuit probably wouldn’t exist if [the remake] Jane had just called the car.”
He set up licensing deals for Eleanors from diecast models to actual replicas, we drove a replica in 2009. He also aggressively defended copyright – which is what copyright holders must do to maintain copyright – targeting numerous people and companies for 20 years. In 2020, YouTuber B is for Build had to make about 14 videos in a series dedicated to building what he called Eleanor Mustang after Denice’s legal team went after him. We should clarify that many aftermarket companies sell kits called “Eleanor” to transform a Mustang into the movie car. The problem is when someone calls the finished vehicle Eleanor Mustang and then tries to profit from the name.
Carroll Shelby Licensing and the Shelby Trust, seeking to relieve GT500 movie car owners of concern over Eleanor’s missteps and the manufacturer’s own licensing efforts, are suing Halicki. The judges watched all three of Halicki’s films involving a car named Eleanor, plus the remake, then gave numerous reasons why the car can’t be copyrighted. These ranged from Eleanor not being “particularly distinctive” to Halicki and his team engaging in “overzealous advocacy” to keep the copyright.
M. Neil Cummings, one of Shelby Trust’s co-trustees and an attorney who has handled the case from the outset, said in a press release: “We can finally tell all of our key Shelby GT500 licensees and owners that Mrs Halicki has absolutely no right to complain or bring any suit based on the appearance of any car licensed by the Shelby Trust… This is exactly why we have had to go to the extreme time and expense to pursue our claims against Mrs Halicki in court. The true value of all Shelby GT500s is now safe with this news.”
Halicki did not answer questions, but has the right to appeal.