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Bob Ross: A Not-So-Happy Mistake

An almost ubiquitous figure in pop culture, Bob Ross has been immortalized through references as broad-spanning as t-shirts quoting his famous line, “happy little accidents”, to a cameo in the Marvel action hero movie, Deadpool.

Bob Ross’ long-running series, “The Joy of Painting”, which ran from 1983 until his untimely death in 1994, resulted in the production of thousands of original artworks. The ownership of this substantial art collection was left in the hands of Bob Ross Inc. (“BRI”), as discussed in a previous blog.

Recently, a documentary was released on Netflix, “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed”, bringing the estate of Bob Ross back into the public eye. It explores behind the scenes Bob Ross’ legacy, delving into the disputes surrounding the use of his name and likeness following his death.

Our previous blog on Bob Ross’ estate explained that, following his death, ownership and control of BRI fell to his business partners, Annette and Walt Kowalski. Bob Ross was known for his easy-going and kind-hearted personality. However, the documentary exposes tensions in the inner business workings of the multi-million dollar empire that was the Bob Ross trademark.

By the end of his life, Bob Ross was allegedly at odds with the Kowalskis and their vision for his brand. Through his will, Bob Ross tried to create a trust in the name of his brother, Jimmie, and son, Steve, that would give them control of his interest in BRI, as well as complete ownership of his name and likeness.

Bob Ross was known for his ‘alla prima’ technique of wet-on-wet paint, which allowed him to be creative in ‘using’ his mistakes to create solutions. Unfortunately for the beneficiaries of the trust, the ink on a contract dries quickly, and the partnership agreement with the Kowalskis was one ‘mistake’ Bob Ross could not fix.

The litigation that followed his death resulted in a settlement granting the Kowalskis complete control of BRI pursuant to the terms of its partnership agreement. Steve, the son, attempted to renew the litigation in 2019 on grounds of an undisclosed term of the trust agreement, granting him exclusive rights to the name and likeness of Bob Ross. The US federal court ruled in favour of BRI, as the plaintiff could not own property that the trust never actually had a legal right to.

The outcome was no doubt disheartening for Steve. However, the law upheld what was ostensibly a valid and enforceable contract, the partnership agreement.

Business vehicles such as partnerships and corporations are commonplace. However, the articles of incorporation of a corporation, for example, can restrict the sale and/or transfer of shares. In entering any kind of business structure, it is always wise to plan ahead. Where so desired, make sure your beneficiaries can benefit from your interest in a business, and remember your estate may not have the power to change or undo contracts you were a party to.

Thank you for reading and have a great day!

Suzana Popovic-Montag & Raphael Leitz