A California federal appeals court recently ruled that the estate of Marilyn Monroe cannot stop a California company from selling her images without her permission. The Ninth Circuit specifically ruled that The Milton Greene Archives can continue to sell images of the famous star without paying her estate for the publicity rights. At the time of Monroe’s death, her estate claimed that she was a New York resident. She had owned a home in California and a New York apartment when she died fifty years ago. The estate claimed New York as her residence in order to avoid paying California inheritance taxes. Consequently, her estate is now foreclosed from claiming that Monroe was a California resident in order to take advantage of a California law that grants posthumous rights of publicity to the famous. New York does not recognize such a right.
Ironically, Monroe’s estate was instrumental in having the California Legislature pass the bill five years ago.
As the appellate court noted, “Monroe’s representatives took one position on Monroe’s domicile at death for forty years, and then changed their position when it was to their great financial advantage.”
Monroe’s estate has generated $27 million in revenue-making it one of the top estate earners.
As a result of the ruling, the Milton Greene Archives can sell images of Monroe taken by its photographers without paying her estate any royalties. If Monroe had been found to have lived in California, the Archive would have had to pay royalties on the sales.
Monroe’s famous acting coach Lee Strasberg inherited 75% of her estate, and he was named her estate’s executor. After he died, his wife Anna took over representing the estate. She filed the instant lawsuit seven years ago.
Ironically, Monroe’s estate might have saved less on taxes than it would have made in royalties from the sale of her images had she been declared a resident of California at the time of her death. Now we’ll never know.