“I don’t want to make money, I just want to be wonderful”: Marilyn Monroe’s estate loses publicity rights

Who knew Marilyn Monroe had such an in-depth understanding of intellectual property law? Fifty years ago the famous actress, model and singer said, “I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else.”  Last week, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit effectively agreed with Monroe’s declaration in a ruling against her estate.

Monroe’s estate was hoping to take advantage of California state laws which allow individuals to control the rights to their name, image and likeness. However, her estate was estopped from doing so because when Monroe died, it consistently argued she was domiciled in New York (a state which doesn’t recognise posthumous publicity rights), in order to avoid paying California estate taxes.  The court would not allow the estate to change its decision retrospectively despite the fact that Monroe had residences in both states before her death.

Why go to so much trouble to protect the image of a person who died in 1962? The answer is… for the money, and lots of it. Monroe’s estate earned US$27million last year and there is a risk that this amount could slide as a result of the court’s recent decision. To put these earnings into perspective, only two deceased celebrities made more money than Monroe in 2011 – Michael Jackson earned US$170million and Elvis Presley earned US$55million.

In the aftermath of the decision, Monroe’s estate has indicated that it plans to protect her likeness using US Federal trademark and copyright laws instead. Although Marilyn Monroe never grew old, dying at age 36, she once said, “I want to grow old without facelifts. I want to have the courage to be loyal to the face I have made.” Perhaps her estate is trying to show her image the same loyalty but they would do well to remember one final Marilyn quote: “I don’t want to make money, I just want to be wonderful.”