A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that Marilyn Monroe’s estate is powerless to stop a California company from selling her images without its permission. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that The Milton Greene Archives can continue to sell iconic images of the actress without paying her estate for publicity rights. The ruling hinged on Monroe’s legal residency. She owned a home in California and an apartment in New York when she died in Los Angeles in 1962.
Her estate at the time claimed Monroe was a New York resident to avoid paying California inheritance taxes. The court ruled that her estate can’t now claim Monroe was a California resident to take advantage of a state law granting posthumous rights of publicity to the famous.
With the estate’s active backing, the state Legislature passed the law in 2007. New York has no such law.
“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,” Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.
The court, citing Forbes “Top-Earning Dead Celebrities” list, said Monroe generated $27 million in revenue, putting her third on the list.
The ruling allows the Milton Green Archives to sell images taken by its photographers without having to pay the estate royalties. Had the court determined Monroe lived in California, royalties would have been owed.
Monroe bought her California house in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood in 1962. She began filming Something’s Got to Give in April of that same year 20th Century Fox Studios lot in Los Angeles. Fox fired her two months later for repeated absences and tardiness. She was found dead in her home on Aug. 5, 1962. The court noted that Monroe maintained her New York apartment and staff during he same time period.
Her acting coach Lee Strasberg inherited 75 percent of her estate was named executor. When Strasburg died, his wife Anna Strasberg took over representing the estate. She filed a lawsuit against the California company in 2005.