If you thought winning an Emmy Award would enable you to cash in on your proud victory, it is my unfortunate duty to tell you that while you might be able to parlay the award into big bucks in your next show, you should not count on selling the statuette. That’s what Whitney Houston’s estate discovered the other day, as it was barred from auctioning off a statuette that she had won. On June 23 the Emmy Awards organizers succeeded in obtaining a California federal court’s restraining order blocking the sale. (The opening bid was to be $10,000.)

Image of award trophiesAt first blush this seems like a strange order, since one might reasonably believe that since the statuette belonged to Ms. Houston and then her estate, the owner could dispose of it as it pleased. However, the court precluded the sale because the very question of ownership is in issue. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, seeking tight control over the resale of its statuettes, had placed tough restrictions on the physical award. The Academy argued that although the award winner is allowed to take the statuette home, the Academy retains copyright ownership of it, which was apparent from a notice on the statuette that it “is the property of and all rights are reserved by the Academy.” The Academy contended the sale would violate copyright law and the law prohibiting conversion (that is, the civil equivalent of criminal theft).

The estate tried to turn the matter into a contract issue, arguing Houston had not agreed to the written notice and therefore could freely sell the statuette. The court rejected that contention, noting that the question was not one of contract but of the Academy’s ownership by virtue of the notice. The restraining order will be followed shortly by a motion for preliminary injunction, in which the Academy will have to demonstrate its likelihood of prevailing in the lawsuit in order to continue to prevent the sale.

The Oscars folks—the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences-- are even more tight-fisted, apparently, than the television Academy, as the former claims tight copyright and trademark control over its highly recognizable statuette and even imposes a contract on winners that they may not sell their statuette without first offering to sell it back to the Academy—for a whopping $10.

The moral of the story? One is that if you’re in show biz for the profit you might make on the sale of your prize, fuggedaboudit. More usefully, recognize that while the objects you think you own usually are yours to do with as you please, some items come with restrictions that you ignore at your peril. Better, though, to focus on how to win the big prize, come Emmys or Oscars time.