One of the accidental side effects of the 2000 remake of the movie Gone in 60 seconds is enthusiastically interested in building an Eleanor Mustang. Another side effect is 18 years of litigation that may have come to an end this month thanks to a verdict in favor of 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 owned an intellectual property right to the Eleanor Mustang from the 2000 movie starring Nicholas Cage since 2008. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California reversed an earlier decision, ruling that the vehicle cannot be copyrighted as an IP. That means anyone can now build their own version of the Eleanor Mustang and call it an 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 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 in a stunt gone wrong. Toby had married Denice three months before he died; one of the items she kept in the estate was the rights to the movie name Gone in 60 seconds. In 1995, she made a deal with Hollywood Pictures to do a big budget reboot, released in 2000, the star car called a 1967 Shelby GT500. She did not file for the trademark of the car, but in 2002 Carroll Shelby did. He acquired the trademark of the Eleanor Mustang in the remake and signed a licensing deal with a Texas builder to make replicas. Halicki sued Shelby in 2004, and after four years of legal roundabouts, a 2008 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in California and a settlement with Shelby granted her exclusive copyright to the Eleanor Mustang. Her lawyers tried to move on, one of them said LA times to which Halicki owned the copyright each vehicle named Eleanor. “It doesn’t matter if it was a bus named 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 TimeThis whole lawsuit probably wouldn’t exist if [the remake] just named the car Jane.”
She made licensing deals for Eleanors, from die-cast models to real replicas, we drove a replica in 2009. She also aggressively defended copyright — what copyright holders must do to maintain copyright — targeting countless individuals and companies over 20 years. In 2020, YouTuber B is for Build had to make about 14 videos in a series dedicated to building what he called an Eleanor Mustang after Denice’s legal team went after him. We should clarify that many aftermarket companies sell kits called “Eleanor” to turn a Mustang into a movie car. The problem is when someone calls the finished vehicle an Eleanor Mustang and then tries to capitalize on the name.
Carroll Shelby Licensing and the Shelby Trust, which sought to free GT500 movie car owners from their concerns about missteps by Eleanor and their own licensing efforts by the manufacturer, sued Halicki. The judges looked at all three of Halicki’s movies that involved a car named Eleanor, plus the remake, and then gave numerous reasons why the car can’t have a copyrighted IP address. These ranged from Eleanor not being “particularly distinctive” to Halicki and her team engaging in “overzealous advocacy” to preserve copyright.
M. Neil Cummings, one of Shelby Trust’s co-custodians and an attorney who has been involved in the case from the start, said in a press release: “We can finally tell all of our major licensees and Shelby GT500 owners that Ms. Halicki has absolutely no right to to sue or sue based on the appearance of a car approved by the Shelby Trust… Which is exactly why we had to go to great lengths to take our claims against Mrs. Halicki in court. with this news, the true value of all Shelby GT500s is now secured.”
Halicki has not responded to questions, but she has the right to appeal.