The King of Pop's mother, Katherine, has formed an alliance with Toronto entrepreneur Howard Mann. The estate's lawyers are monitoring releases from his Vintage Pop Media.
For someone trying to sell a book, it couldn't get much better than this: Oprah Winfrey, the nation's reader-in-chief, was holding up a glossy volume of Michael Jackson photographs for her vast television audience while tossing softball questions to its co-author, the late singer's 80-year-old mother.
The gauzily shot moment of marketing gold last month was not the work of the official Jackson estate but of a little-known Toronto businessman, Howard Mann, a brash, goateed 38-year-old who cut his teeth in the titillation trade — nude online gambling, a naked women's wrestling league — and is now pursuing an unorthodox plan to profit from what he calls "the most valuable name in history."
That plan is a direct challenge to the Jackson estate, the behemoth quasi-corporation whose carefully strategized promotion of the pop star's legacy and ironhanded crackdown on unlicensed merchandise have translated into hundreds of millions in posthumous earnings. The brewing fight between the estate and Mann is the latest wrinkle in the settling of his affairs and another reminder that even in death, nothing involving the King of Pop is ever simple.
Mann is taking on the estate armed with two weapons — a legal loophole that he says gives him carte blanche to flout intellectual property laws and an unlikely alliance with Jackson's mother, Katherine. Frustrated with the size of her allowance from the estate, the family matriarch has entered into a business partnership with Mann in which she has given her blessing to the book and other projects and he has paid her what he said was "hundreds of thousands of dollars."
"I'm very pleased working with Howard. He's been very good to me," she said recently.
These joint endeavors are becoming a headache for estate administrators, who seem reticent to offend Katherine Jackson, the guardian of the singer's three children and a much admired figure to fans. A lawyer for the estate dismissed Mann's novel legal theory as flawed, but the administrators have not moved to stop sales of his unauthorized Jackson products as they have others who tried to cash in on Jackson's name or likeness. For the past five months, the estate has sat silent as Mann's company, Vintage Pop Media, has touted its ownership of a trove of Jackson memorabilia — photos, personal papers, costumes and music — and hawked the book, calendars and other items on its website.
Asked to explain, the estate's lawyer, Howard Weitzman, said of Mann: "His day is coming. The estate will be taking appropriate legal action."
In the scope of the Jackson empire, with its $273-million deal with Sony and the $260-million concert movie, Mann's ventures — the $39.99 book and the $27.98 calendar — are small-time. However, his projects have hit a nerve in the delicate relationship between Jackson's beloved mother and the two music veterans he tapped in his will to control his business affairs.
Under the terms of a private trust set up by the will, the singer's children and his mother each get a 40% share of the trust with the remainder going to charity. Upon Katherine Jackson's death, her portion passes to the children. Jackson owed creditors about half a billion dollars at the time of his death. The estate remains in the red although massive music and merchandise deals as well as financial restructuring have significantly reduced the debt.
In a telephone interview, Katherine Jackson praised administrators John Branca and John McClain for doing "a very good job" managing the estate but criticized her monthly cash allowance of $7,000 to $8,000 as inadequate and said it left her dependent on Mann to cover her expenses.
"I wish they would leave Howard alone and I wish they would leave me alone for working with Howard. I'm not greedy like people say. It's need not greed," she said.
The estate disputes the suggestion that administrators are not meeting her living expenses. Weitzman, the lawyer, noted that the allowance was approved by a probate judge and said the cash payments were only one aspect of the financial support that administrators provided. The estate also paid off the mortgage on the family home in Encino and foots the bill for household staff, security, vehicles, food, tuition and vacations.
"The estate has spent millions of dollars for Mrs. Jackson's benefit and on the direct living expenses of both Mrs. Jackson and the children," Weitzman said.
But for Katherine Jackson, it is not enough. "I think I should be getting more," she said. She declined to specify why she needed the money. Her husband, Joe, sought an allowance from the court but was denied. Several other grandchildren also reside at the family home.