Graham, who was born in Berlin, escaped Germany and France during the Second World War and lived as a foster child in the Bronx. He moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s and got his start as a promoter by organizing a benefit.
He presented concerts at the Fillmore Theater in San Francisco and worked with performers including Jefferson Airplane, the Rolling Stones, and the Grateful Dead.
He died in 1991 in a helicopter crash near Vallejo, California, on his way home from a Huey Lewis and the News concert.
His will created trusts for his sons, who were 14 and 23 at the time of his death. The executor of the will and the trustee was Nicholas Clainos, Grahams’s friend and business partner.
In 2010, 15 years after the probate court had made the final disposition of Graham’s estate, Graham’s sons sued Clainos, his attorneys, and the Bill Graham Archives. Graham’s sons claimed that they had been cheated out of hundreds of valuable rock concert posters and the copyrights associated with those posters.
Graham’s sons also claimed that Clainos and his attorney had “concealed and converted” the rights to “The Fillmore” trademark.
Graham’s sons claim Clainos and his attorney had assigned the poster rights to a new subsidiary of Bill Graham Presents in a document dated August 31, 1995, and then backdated that document to August 1, before the probate case closed. Clainos became the subsidiary’s largest shareholder, according to the complaint.
A federal district court dismissed the claim against Clainos but the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded, holding that the plaintiffs had pled facts sufficient to show that assignment was not effective and thus that they had a legitimate claim to the copyrights for the posters.
Some of the concert posters, including the one above, were published without copyright notices before 1977 and thus are now in the public domain.
For works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. Thus, an author or artist can bequeath copyrights (and the associated royalty streams) to his or her heirs after death.