A Legal Minute: Marilyn Monroe Images, A little bit of the legal side
“Some Like It Public Domain”
When I was growing up, one of music’s biggest stars was Elton John, and one of the most epic songs he ever wrote is one that sticks in the mind of many, Candle In The Wind. Of course, the song’s 1997 version, in honor of Princess Di got more exposure, but the original, in honor of Marilyn Monroe is the more epic version.
Marilyn Monroe’s legacy has permeated a great deal of pop culture. From posters to handbags, water globes, to wall clocks, Marilyn’s image is still alive and well. In fact, Marilyn Monroe sits as the third highest earning dead celebrity, behind Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. In 2011, earnings off of her image amounted to about 27 million dollars.
For the most part, all of the images of Marilyn that are commercially available have to pay some royalty to the estate of Marilyn Monroe. As the numbers indicate, her estate has been able to rake in a sizable amount of money licensing her image. Her estate has been quick to sue anyone who exploits her image, without their consent, from clothing to furniture.
However, this past Thursday, the money the estate collects could be in major jeopardy. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling stating that Monroe LLC, her estate, can’t claim Marilyn Monroe was domiciled in California when she died. This is important because the law that allows her estate to collect on her image is based on a California state law that gives Marilyn’s estate the ability to collect on use of her likeness for up to 70 years after her death. As far as state laws go, California’s is pretty generous.
It seems that the heirs of Monroe only have themselves to blame. Years ago, when Marilyn passed away, her attorneys claimed she was domiciled in New York at her death to avoid the high taxes that California would impose if she were claimed to be a domiciliary of California (where she lived most of the time). Since that time, states like California have changed their laws from when Marilyn Monroe died to give dead celebrities rights of publicity that last many years after death. New York, on the other hand, extends no such right.
Thus, as the years have passed, the attorneys for Monroe’s estate have tried to use the California law to their advantage, and after years of being in litigation limbo, the 9th Circuit finally decided that Marilyn’s estate can no longer use California law to their advantage, since they originally elected to take advantage of New York law.
Although this decision negatively impacts her estate, it’s a pretty specific situation and probably will not affect other dead celebrities, but here, the loss of estate income looks like it will be pretty significant, leading to Marilyn finally belonging to the public, who made her famous.
Roberto “R.C.” Rondero de Mosier is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, California, New York and Illinois. He is a partner at Gonzalez & Mosier Law PLLC. His practice specializes in Entertainment Law and Intellectual Property rights. In his spare time he enjoys watching television and films, and writing about it. Follow him on Twitter @showbizattorney, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Candle In The Wind – Elton John – Marilyn Monroe Video
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