Musings on books, technology, entrepreneurship, nonprofits and umm.. everything else …

Who owns Marilyn Monroe?

I mean that in a figurative sense of course as the celebrity herself is not with us anymore. Who owns you after you die, specifically if what you did when you lived was in the public sphere?

This is something that Bill Cosby has been trying to get legislated in Massachusetts. And his legal team is making some headway on that front. The underlying issue here is the publicity rights of a celebrity and their ownership post-mortem by the estate in terms of how  their likeness can be reproduced in any form. The key concern here is that the celebrity does not wish their likeness to be used to endorse any product that they might not have endorsed while alive. What makes this a big mess is that there is no single federal law that addresses this, but it is a mish-mash of state laws passed over the years. For example, one of the most “progressive” in terms of the rights of dead people on this front has been .. take a guess .. Indiana. The reason for this is not that a lot of celebrities live there, or lived there, but that Indiana is the home of CMG Worldwide, that owns rights to a wide array of celebrities, ranging from James Dean to Malcolm X and as such have been lobbying for fairly expansive laws.

And where does our fair lady figure in all this? Unfortunately for her, she was domiciled in New York where the laws are not that stringent. Her estate and CMG went through a lengthy “divorce” in 2010, but CMG continued to use assets that the estate was not happy about. After lawsuits in New York, they decided to settle out of court.  Digicon Media is in the crosshairs of the estate now, as  they announced a concert with a 3D hologram of Marilyn Monroe.

And in the  fascinating history of  this  issue, the first strike, pretty much, has to do with America’s favorite pastime … and gum. More specifically the first lawsuit on this issue was Haelan Laboratories, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc where the two parried in court on the rights of use of baseball player images on baseball cards. I believe there was a Charlie Chaplin lawsuit as well but that was during his lifetime.  In California, the dead own rights to their image for 70 years after their death.

If details of these issues tickle your fancy, then here is a good paper that talks about it it some detail on Protecting Celebrity Legacies.

So if you plan to get famous, there’s another wad of Benjamins to hand off to lawyers to make sure that your estate owns the rights to your likeness and its fair use once you’re gone!

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