Law Decides Who Owns a Dead Star's Image

Marilyn Monroe taken by Milton Greene i i

Milton Greene's shot of Monroe in a ballerina outfit is one of 4,900 of images he took of the actress. Milton H. Greene/2007 Joshua Greene www.archiveimages.com hide caption

itoggle caption Milton H. Greene/2007 Joshua Greene www.archiveimages.com
Marilyn Monroe taken by Milton Greene

Milton Greene's shot of Monroe in a ballerina outfit is one of 4,900 of images he took of the actress.

Milton H. Greene/2007 Joshua Greene www.archiveimages.com
Monroe in a white dress. i i

Sam Shaw's shot of Monroe as her white dress blows around her in a gust of wind is one of the photographs in the Milton Greene archive. Sam Shaw/2007 Joshua Greene www.archiveimages.com hide caption

itoggle caption Sam Shaw/2007 Joshua Greene www.archiveimages.com
Monroe in a white dress.

Sam Shaw's shot of Monroe as her white dress blows around her in a gust of wind is one of the photographs in the Milton Greene archive.

Sam Shaw/2007 Joshua Greene www.archiveimages.com
Marilyn Monroe with a puppy. i i

Monroe in a photograph Greene shot for a 1955 Look magazine editorial on oriental gowns. The motif included an embroidered ottoman, a folding dressing screen and a Pekinese dog. Milton H. Greene/2007 Joshua Greene www.archiveimages.com hide caption

itoggle caption Milton H. Greene/2007 Joshua Greene www.archiveimages.com
Marilyn Monroe with a puppy.

Monroe in a photograph Greene shot for a 1955 Look magazine editorial on oriental gowns. The motif included an embroidered ottoman, a folding dressing screen and a Pekinese dog.

Milton H. Greene/2007 Joshua Greene www.archiveimages.com
Milton Greene and Marilyn Monroe i i

Greene and Monroe became friends when he photographed her for Look magazine. For a time she even lived with Greene and his wife, Amy, and babysat his son, Josh. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Milton Greene and Marilyn Monroe

Greene and Monroe became friends when he photographed her for Look magazine. For a time she even lived with Greene and his wife, Amy, and babysat his son, Josh.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Anna Strasberg i i

Anna Strasberg (left) with Postmaster General Marvin Runyon and Monroe friend Zsa Zsa Gabor at the issue of the Marilyn Monroe commemorative stamp. Strasberg was bequeathed Monroe's estate after the death of her husband, Lee. Lee had been Monroe's acting coach, and she left most of her estate to him when she died in 1962. Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Anna Strasberg

Anna Strasberg (left) with Postmaster General Marvin Runyon and Monroe friend Zsa Zsa Gabor at the issue of the Marilyn Monroe commemorative stamp. Strasberg was bequeathed Monroe's estate after the death of her husband, Lee. Lee had been Monroe's acting coach, and she left most of her estate to him when she died in 1962.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed into law what has been jokingly called the dead celebrities bill.

The law essentially says that famous people can pass on the rights to their image to anyone they want — and the right exists even if they died decades ago.

The issue has surfaced recently because of a lengthy legal battle over Marilyn Monroe's estate. At the center of that battle is Josh Greene, son of photographer Milton Greene.

Milton Greene met Marilyn Monroe in 1952, when he photographed her for Look magazine. They became friends, and for a time she even lived with Greene and his wife, Amy. Greene became one of Monroe's favorite photographers, and he left the many pictures he took of her – about 4,900 images — to his son, Josh.

After his father died, Josh Greene began restoring and selling some of the Monroe photos.

But there was a problem. Monroe had left most of her estate to her acting coach, Lee Strasberg. Strasberg's widow, Anna — who barely knew Monroe — now controls the rights to the star's image.

Over the years, Strasberg has reportedly made millions of dollars from licensing Monroe's image. What ensued was a legal battle that has lasted almost as long as Monroe's career itself.

Strasberg's son, David, said the dispute boils down to one simple question.

"How can a celebrity's legacy be protected, and who can do that?" David Strasberg said. "And our contention has been that the person that they entrust their estate to is the person who should be able to protect them."

Whose Property?

Earlier this year, two federal judges ruled against Strasberg, both in the Greene case and in a similar one involving another Monroe photographer. The judges ruled that when Monroe died, she may have wanted to pass on the rights to her image to Strasberg, but there was no provision in the law allowing it.

"If the right didn't exist in 1962, she couldn't have owned it, and therefore, she couldn't have passed it on," said Jane Ginsburg, who teaches trademark law at Columbia Law School.

The ruling meant that Strasberg no longer controlled Monroe's image. Anyone was free to use the star's pictures.

And a lot of people did, according to California state Sen. Sheila Kuehl.

"All of a sudden, on the Internet you saw advertisements for Marilyn Monroe sex oil, Marilyn Monroe underwear," Kuehl said.

A bill sponsored by Kuehl and signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger on Wednesday said celebrities who bequeathed the rights to their image to someone in their wills were allowed to do so. The law applies even to people who, like Monroe, died decades ago.

"It's a property right," Kuehl said. "I own my image when I'm alive. I can pass it on when I'm dead."

Broader Repercussions

Kuehl said the issue is important for several reasons. Digital technology now permits advertisers to manipulate the images of dead people, like the infamous 1997 commercial in which Fred Astaire danced with a vacuum cleaner.

Kuehl also says that over the years, many celebrities have left their estates to nonprofit foundations; the law ensures that they were within their rights to do so.

Josh Greene worries that other states will now see the California bill as a precedent and try to pass something similar.

"It's against the Constitution to take away someone's property," Greene said. "Somebody can't come in and take away your property. You own it. Your father, let's say, composed a piece of music. Now, all of a sudden, someone else is going to come in and say, 'We're going to take over your rights.' I beg your pardon?"

Greene also contends that the bill signed Wednesday doesn't apply to Monroe because she was actually a resident of New York. But that issue is in dispute; if a judge rules she actually lived in California, the new bill will apply. And that will sharply curtail Greene's ability to sell the pictures his father took back when Marilyn Monroe was his babysitter.

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