Law Decides Who Owns a Dead Star's Image A new California law allows famous people to pass along the rights to their image as part of their estates. As a result of the retroactive law, an archive of Marilyn Monroe shots owned by her favorite photographer now belongs to the wife of her acting coach.
NPR logo

Law Decides Who Owns a Dead Star's Image

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Law Decides Who Owns a Dead Star's Image


Law Decides Who Owns a Dead Star's Image

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

In California yesterday, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law what has been jokingly called the dead celebrities' bill. It 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.

As NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, it's an issue that's come up lately because of a lengthy legal battle over Marilyn Monroe's estate.

JIM ZARROLI: Milton Greene met Marilyn Monroe in 1952 when he photographed her for Look magazine. They became friends and for a time, Monroe even lived with Green and his wife Amy. In this 1954 TV interview with Edward R. Murrow, the star sat next to the couple and talked about the time a writer introduced her to Greene.


MARILYN MONROE: And I saw the most beautiful pictures I've ever seen. And I said, I'd like for this photographer to photograph me. And he says, well, here he is. And I turned and looked and I said, but he's just a boy.


ZARROLI: Greene became one of Monroe's favorite photographers and he left the many pictures he took to his son, Josh.

JOSH GREENE: But when you add it all up out of the 52 sittings, there's about forty-nine hundred images that cover that four-year period.

ZARROLI: After his father died, Josh Greene began restoring the Monroe photos and licensing some of them. But there was a problem. Monroe had left most of her estate to her acting coach, Lee Strasberg, and it then passed on to Strasberg's widow, Anna, who barely knew Monroe. Over the years, Strasberg has carefully controlled how Monroe's image is used and also reportedly made millions of dollars off it. What ensued was a legal battle that's lasted almost as long as Monroe's career itself. Strasberg's son, David, says the dispute boils down to one question.

DAVID STRASBERG: How can a celebrity's legacy be protected and who can do that? And our contention has been the person who they entrusted their estate to is the person who should be able to protect them.

ZARROLI: But 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.

Jane Ginsburg teaches trademark law at Columbia Law School.

JANE GINSBURG: If the right didn't exist in 1952, she couldn't have owned it and therefore, she could've passed it on.

ZARROLI: The ruling meant anyone was free to use the star's image and lots of people did, says California State Senator Sheila Kuehl.

SHEILA KUEHL: All of a sudden on the Internet you saw advertisements very quickly for Marilyn Monroe sex oil, Marilyn Monroe underwear. I mean, a lot of stuff that you - you know, this was not about and yet it opened it up right away.

ZARROLI: A bill sponsored by Kuehl and signed by Governor Schwarzenegger yesterday would essentially reverse the court's ruling. It says celebrities who bequeath the rights to their image to someone in their wills were entitled to do so even if, like Monroe, they died decades ago.

KUEHL: It's a property right, you know. I own my image when I'm alive, I can pass it on when I'm dead.

ZARROLI: Kuehl says the bill is especially important right now because of advances in digital technology that allow advertisers to manipulate the images of dead people. But to critics like Josh Greene, the bill is nothing less than an attempt to take away someone's property.

GREENE: Somebody else 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?

ZARROLI: Greene's attorney contends that the bill signed yesterday doesn't apply to Monroe because she was actually a resident of New York. But that issue is in dispute. If a judge rules that she actually lived in California, it will sharply curtail Greene's ability to sell the pictures his father took back when Marilyn Monroe was his babysitter.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.