California Company Can Sell Marilyn Monroe Images, Court Rules

Marilyn Monroe remains a pop culture icon, despite the fact that it’s been 50 years since her death. Even those who have never seen her films can immediately identify the actress in photos, which are still ubiquitous today.

Those images of the quintessential American sex symbol were the focus of a recent appeals court decision regarding her estate. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Monroe’s estate isn’t entitled to receive royalties from The Milton Greene Archives, which for several decades has sold images of Monroe around the world. In addition to being a close friend and her biographer, Green was the photographer responsible for capturing the most well-known images of Monroe.

After Monroe died in 1962, she left 75 percent of her estate to her acting coach, Lee Strasburg, also naming him as executor. Upon his death, his widow took control of Monroe’s estate and filed a lawsuit insisting that The Milton Green Archives pay royalties for the photos it sold of Monroe.

But after five years of legal wrangling, the court unanimously ruled against Monroe’s estate, citing a California law passed in 2007 granting posthumous publicity rights. The law only applies to residents of the state, and that’s the catch. At the time of Monroe’s death, she owned a home in Los Angeles and had an apartment in New York. Her estate claimed that she was a New York resident to avoid paying California inheritance taxes. That claim may have saved some money for the estate 40 years ago, but as a result it’s exempt from collecting royalties in California. New York doesn’t have a corresponding law.

This case demonstrates the complexities of estate planning and administration, which are governed by a multitude of laws and regulations. Because the rules vary from state to state and over time, a probate attorney who understands these complexities can be extremely helpful when it comes time to plan or administer an estate of your own.

Source: Entertainment Weekly, “Court rules against Marilyn Monroe estate,” Sept. 4, 2012