It is a decision one imagines the legendary Hollywood star might well have embraced: Marilyn Monroe, according to a new legal ruling, belongs to everybody.
A US federal court said on Thursday that Monroe’s estate was wrong to pursue photograph libraries and other organizations that use her image without permission or payment on T-shirts and other memorabilia. It all stems from a decision made almost half a century ago by the Some Like It Hot star’s legal representatives in the wake of her 1962 death. Faced with a huge tax bill from the Californian authorities if they registered her final abode in the state, they chose to list the actor’s official domicile as New York, where Monroe had a second home, because the latter did not charge estate taxes.
However, a move that saved Monroe’s heirs millions of dollars at the time could now end up costing them far more.
New York does not share California’s generous laws regarding control of dead celebrities’ images, and last week’s hearing ruled in favor of those who believe the actor’s estate has, for decades, been wrongly extracting a fee each time Monroe’s image is used.
The issue came to light when the estate took a number of photograph libraries to court in the middle of the last decade for selling her image without permission. Several courts, noting that Monroe’s official final abode was New York, opted to abide by that state’s statutes and threw out the cases. The legal battle continued up until last week’s decision by the federal ninth circuit court of appeals, despite efforts by the state of California at one point to retrospectively award rights to the estate via a change in the law. That position now appears to have been reversed.
“This is a textbook case for applying judicial estoppel,” Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote in her ruling on Thursday. “Monroe’s representatives took one position on Monroe’s domicile at death for 40 years, and then changed their position when it was to their great financial advantage, an advantage they secured years after Monroe’s death by convincing the California legislature to create rights that did not exist when Monroe died. Marilyn Monroe is often quoted as saying: ‘If you’re going to be two-faced, at least make one of them pretty.’”
In a footnote to its ruling, the court said that Monroe once foresaw the battle over rights to her image and its outcome.
“We observe that the lengthy dispute over the exploitation of Marilyn Monroe’s persona has ended in exactly the way that Monroe herself predicted more than 50 years ago,” the judgement reads. “’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.’”