One of the accidental side effects of the 2000 remake of the movie “Gone in 60 Seconds” is enthusiast interest in building an Eleanor Mustang. Another side effect is 18 years of lawsuits that might have come to a conclusion this month thanks to a judgment favoring plaintiff Carroll Shelby Licensing against defendant Denice Shakarian Halicki. We’ll start with the conclusion and what it means, then lay out the short version of the story. Halicki has held an intellectual property copyright on the Eleanor Mustang from the 2000 movie with Nicholas Cage since 2008. Reversing an earlier decision, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that the vehicle cannot be copyrighted as IP. That means anyone can now build their own version of the Eleanor Mustang and call it an Eleanor, and Shelby Licensing can enter partnerships with companies who wish to build an Eleanor with Shelby American’s blessing.
We’ll relate a short version of how we got here. It starts with Henry Blight “Toby” Halicki, who made the original Gone in 60 Seconds in 1974. While working on his own 1989 remake, he died during a stunt gone wrong. Toby had married Denice three months before he died; one of the items she retained in the estate was the rights to the movie name “Gone in 60 Seconds.” In 1995, she closed a deal with Hollywood Pictures to do a big budget reboot, which came out in 2000, its star car referred to as a 1967 Shelby GT500. She didn’t apply to trademark the car, but in 2002, Carroll Shelby did. He acquired the trademark to the Eleanor Mustang in the remake and entered a licensing agreement with a Texas builder to make replicas. Halicki sued Shelby in 2004, and after four years of legal roundabouts, a 2008 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for Ninth Circuit in California and settlement with Shelby granted her exclusive copyright to the Eleanor Mustang. Her lawyers tried to go further, one telling the L.A. Times that Halicki owned the copyright to any vehicle named Eleanor. “It doesn’t matter if it was a bus called Eleanor,” he said. “The magic was the name, and that was the thing [Shelby] tried to get.” As an aside, an auto historian told the Times, “This whole lawsuit probably wouldn’t exist if [the remake] had just called the car Jane.”
She established licensing agreements for Eleanors from die cast models to real replicas, we drove a replica in 2009. She also aggressively defended the copyright — which is what copyright holders need to do to keep the copyright — targeting numerous individuals and companies for 20 years. In 2020, YouTuber B is for Build had to pull around 14 videos in a series devoted to building what he called an Eleanor Mustang after Denice’s legal team went after him. We should clarify that plenty of aftermarket companies sell kits called “Eleanor” to turn a Mustang into the movie car. The problem is when anyone calls the finished vehicle an Eleanor Mustang and then attempts to profit off the name.
Carroll Shelby Licensing and the Shelby Trust, trying to free GT500 movie car owners from worry about Eleanor missteps and their own manufacturer licensing efforts, sued Halicki. The judges watched all three of Halicki’s movies that involved a car named Eleanor, plus the remake, then gave numerous reasons for why the car can’t be copyrighted IP. These ranged from Eleanor not being “especially distinctive” to Halicki and her team being engaged in “overzealous advocacy” to maintain the copyright.
M. Neil Cummings, one of the Shelby Trust co-trustees and an attorney who been on the case since the beginning, said in a press release, “We can finally tell all our important licensees and Shelby GT500 owners that Mrs. Halicki has absolutely no right to complain about or file a lawsuit based upon the looks of any car licensed by the Shelby Trust … That is exactly why we had to go to the extreme time and expense of pursuing our claims against Mrs. Halicki in court. The true value of all Shelby GT500s is now secure with this news.”
Halicki hasn’t responded to inquiries, but she has the right to appeal.