News

Hands off my cold, dead image

In Hollywood, they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Apparently nobody bothered to tell Marilyn Monroe.

Monroe has been dead 45 years, but the legendary star is taking center stage in a political and legal fight over her image–and the image of other actors–in the peculiar, high-stakes world known as post-mortem publicity.

Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, herself a popular TV performer from the
1960s, is poised to introduce legislation that she believes will keep images of dead celebrities like Marilyn Monroe from ending up on bottles of sex oils.
Her bill, SB 771, originally dealt with stem-cell research. But the bill was gutted and amended to address recent court decisions that limited the scope of after-death publicity rights to family heirs. The courts also found that those rights, transferable after death like jewelry and other property, don’t apply to celebrities who died before the law was enacted in 1984.

“From my point of view this legislation shouldn’t have been necessary,” Kuehl said. “I believe it was always the intention of the code to include celebrities who died before 1985, as well as after.”

In May, after courts stripped Marilyn Monroe LLC of exclusive licensing
rights for the Hollywood starlet and sex symbol, Kuehl said underwear and sex oils started appearing on shelves bearing Monroe’s image.

“If that’s the case, I’d like to see it,” said Gary Saal with Pacific Licensing, who represents family members of photographers who have shot some of Monroe’s most famous pictures. The families, who own the copyrights to thousands of Monroe photos, have challenged Marilyn Monroe LLC’s status as image custodian. Saul said that if there is something all companies believe in, though, it is fighting unauthorized uses of Monroe’s likeness that could sully her reputation.
“I can assure you that neither Pacific Licensing nor our photographers
would ever enter into any discussion on that type of product,” Saal said.

In California, many celebrities now pass on the rights to their voice,
likeness, signature and other identity markers to specified friends and relatives after their death. Additionally, celebrities are also protected by law from unauthorized commercial exploits of their image while they are alive. But in 1984, California began to bestow such rights on family members so they could control how their beloved was marketed on T-shirts, pencils and all other products after their death.

Image licensing is big business. Frequently, family members or charity institutions charge a licensing fee for authorized use of dead celebrity images; there are exceptions in the law for creative and newsworthy applications. In May, Marilyn Monroe LLC and its business partner CMG Worldwide, custodians of Monroe’s image, lost two summary judgments in court cases in California and New York. The courts found that the right of publicity didn’t extend to non-blood relatives. Marilyn Monroe LLC was founded by Anna Strasberg, the wife of Monroe’s famed acting coach, Lee Strasberg. For the past several years, Marilyn Monroe LLC and CMG Worldwide have been locked in court battles with families of Monroe’s official photographers.

At the same time, last week a bill that Marilyn Monroe LLC supported to confer post-mortem publicity rights in New York failed to make it out of a legislative committee amid concerns its provisions were overly broad.

In California, SB 771, which is being informally referred to as the Marilyn Monroe Act, would abrogate the judges’ decisions by backdating the right of publicity prior to 1984. It would also establish that people other than family members of dead celebrities may inherit that right through the residuary clause of their will; this provision would specifically benefit Marilyn Monroe LLC, which last week hired Wada Williams Law Group to lobby the governor and Legislature. The bill is expected to be referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.

Surjit Soni, a lawyer for Milton H. Greene Archives, the plaintiff in the California lawsuit with Marilyn Monroe LLC, said that when Monroe died she set-up a trust for her half-sister, and gave money to her secretary, some friends, and to help her sick mother. Monroe then directed her acting coach, Lee Strasberg, to distribute the rest of her personal possessions — jewelry, papers and clothes – to friends.

“He sat on it for twenty years


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