Intellectual property rights may be the single most valuable asset owned by a decedent’s estate, and in the case of celebrities, the dollar amounts can easily be in the millions (see here). This recent news item is but the latest example of pseudo probate litigation addressing the issue (see here for others). The following is an excerpt from Lensman’s Estate Wins Battle Over Images of Marilyn Monroe:
A federal judge in Manhattan has sided with the family of late photographer Sam Shaw in a dispute over the rights to images of Marilyn Monroe.
Southern District of New York Judge Colleen McMahon rejected a claim that the estate of Shaw had violated Monroe’s right of publicity by selling photos without the consent of Marilyn Monroe LLC, a company founded by the Hollywood icon’s heirs.
The judge, writing in Shaw Family Archives Ltd. v. CMG Worldwide, Inc., 05-CV-3939, said the laws of New York, California and Indiana, which were at the heart of the dispute, did not grant a retroactive right of publicity to Monroe after her death.
"Ms. Monroe could not devise by will a property right she did not own at the time of her death in 1962," the judge wrote.
The ruling is the first of its kind involving the image of the legendary sex symbol. The attorneys who represent the Shaw estate, David M. Marcus and Christopher Serbagi, said "tens of millions" of dollars are at stake because of the ruling. They will pursue counterclaims against Monroe’s heirs for interfering with licensing relationships.