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A Royal Round of Negotiations: A Legal Look at Prince Harry and Meghan’s Shift from the Royal Family

With the announcement that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will step back from royal life, Torontonians and Suits fans are waiting with bated breath to see if Princess Meghan will return to Toronto with her prince charming in tow.  Having tested the royal life as a married couple, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex issued a statement on January 9, 2020 that they are stepping back as senior members of Britain’s Royal Family and will “work to become financially independent”, splitting their time between North America and the United Kingdom.  Any savvy lawyer’s first thought after reading the official statement was: there’s going to be whole lot of intense negotiations coming up!  Stepping back as ‘senior members’ of the Royal Family is not a full abdication of responsibilities.  Which begs the question: what is their new official role within the Royal Family?  Second, how can they monetize their own brand, without it implicating the Royal Family? 

In terms of becoming financially independent, both Harry and Meghan come to the negotiating table with robust personal brands of their own, which is easy fodder from which to immediately monetize in a myriad of ways: speaking engagements, brand ambassador positions, merchandising opportunities.  But, if the couple maintains some connection with the Royal Family, it is possible that they may be somewhat constrained in their newfound freedom and this will be a closely negotiated point between the Royal Family and the royal’ish couple. 

Let’s be honest: we don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors.  And we likely won’t know until the royal’ish couple makes its next announcement.  But, behind the scenes, there is a strategy at play and, as with all things, the structure is rooted in law.  When monetizing public figures, it is important to remember that that the person and his/her persona (which are inextricably combined) are, in fact, a brand.  Monetization of that brand comes through licensing deals.  The crux of the celebrity brand, as an asset that is capable of monetization, is based in law.  Indeed, any successful personal brand is rooted in a combination of trademark rights, copyrights, personality rights, licensing grants and contractual terms.

The media, ever eager to run any story relating to the Royal Family, picked up that Harry and Meghan has filed a trademark application in the UK for SUSSEX ROYAL and is speculating that this is the vehicle upon which the couple will find financial independence.  However, upon further investigation, it may not be as shocking a move as the media has portrayed.  In fact, it appears that it is standard practice for the Royal Family to trademark their own brand. 

Prior to their surprise announcement, the royal’ish couple set up a charitable foundation from which they would operate called The Sussex Royal the Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.  This is not uncommon practice.  In fact, Prince Harry’s big bro and sister in law, Prince William and Kate, also co-own their own charitable foundation, The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.  Each entity is simply the legal structure under which each royal family member operates for their respective charitable initiatives.  Another common feature is that each charitable foundation owns a series of trademarks, which they use to commercialize for charitable gains.  Whereas Harry and Meghan’s foundation only owns two UK trademark applications (SUSSEX ROYAL and SUSSEX ROYAL THE FOUNDATION OF THE DUKE AND DUCHESS OF SUSSEX), William and Kate’s charitable foundation own a series of trademarks, which includes THE ROYAL FOUNDATION and also THE ROYAL FOUNDATION OF THE DUKE AND DUCHESS OF CAMBRIDGE.  In each instance, the scope of protection of the trademarks includes a myriad of various wares and services.  This is a strategic play, which increases merchandising opportunities to generate more revenue to be donated to associated charitable organizations.  Thus, the fact that there are trademark applications that have been filed is not, in itself, an indication that the royal’ish couple will be monetizing the SUSSEX ROYAL brand for their financial freedom.  But it could be. 

It is likely that the brand under which the royal’ish couple will operate as private for-profit citizens will be a feature in the couple’s first round of negotiations that will set the tone for their rest of their lives.  Who is on the other side of the negotiating table?  Her Majesty, herself.  A key consideration for the Royal Family will be to determine what is royal’ish couple’s relationship with the Royal Family.  What are their roles and responsibilities?  Under what brand will they be performing those duties?  Under what brand will they be monetizing their own brands in a commercial way as private for-profit citizens?  It is likely that the Royal Family will want a clear delineation between when the couple is representing the Royal Family and when it is seeking financial gain as private citizens.  Once this stipulation is set, the royal’ish couple will be free to go on to their next round of negotiations with third parties to commercialize their own brands and, to hopefully, change the world to be a better place.  In the meantime, we cautiously and hopefully say to the royal’ish couple: “Welcome Home!”