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Celebrity likenesses revisited

Since I wrote my post entitled “No Right of Publicity for Marilyn Monroe” last June, there’s been a significant change to the law regarding Deceased celebrities’ likenesses.

A few weeks ago, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger signed into law a bill that’s jokingly been called “the dead celebrities bill”.  The new law essentially reaches back to retroactively create a property right in a celebrity’s image, allowing that right to be transferred according to the celebrity decedent’s wishes.

The issue surfaced again recently in connection with another battle over photos of Marilyn Monroe.  In that case, the estate of photographer Milton Greene, who photographed Monroe in 1952 for Look Magazine.   Greene was, according to many, one of Monroe’s favorite photographers.

After the photographer’s death, his son began restoring and selling some of the Monroe photos, but Anna Strasberg,  who now controls the Monroe estate sued top prevent this exploitation of Monroe’s image.  (Strasberg, who hardly knew Marilyn, inherited the Monroe estate from her husband Lee Strasberg, Marilyn’s long time friend and acting coach.)

In that case, rulings went against Strasberg, on grounds similar to the Shaw Family Archive Case I discussed in June.  Essentially, the courts held that since no provision of law existed at the time of her death to create a property right in her likeness, Ms. Monroe didn’t have any such right to transfer.  The ruling meant that Monroe’s likeness was fair game for anybody to exploit.

Enter California State Senator Sheila Kuehl (herself a former actress), who sponsored the Bill signed earlier this month.  The law gives celebrities, even those who have been dead for decades, a property right to bequeath as part of their estates.

Josh Greene, the son of photographer Milton Greene thinks the law is unconstitutional because it amounts to taking away his property.  Moreover, he contends  that although Monroe died in California, she was actually a New York resident at the time, so the new law probably won’t apply to her case.

6 Responses to Celebrity likenesses revisited

  1. I also have a question about intellectual property rights.
    I was reading about Civil Code section 3344.1, known as the “Astaire Celebrity Image Protection Act,”

    A wikipedia article states:

    “Among the uses exempt from the Astaire act:
    ‘a play, book, magazine, newspaper, musical composition, audiovisual work, radio or television program, single and original work of art, work of political or newsworthy value, or an advertisement or commercial announcement for any of these works, shall not be considered a product, article of merchandise, good, or service if it is fictional or nonfictional entertainment, or a dramatic, literary, or musical work. ‘ ”

    This sounds to me like an original work of fine art is exempt from this law.
    Is this correct?

    I am an artist who was almost sued by CMG enteratainment for using a celbrity likeness, and I would like to know if they would have had a real case against me.

    Thanks to anyone who can help.

    • I, too read the quoted provision as excluding original works of fine art, however the Astaire Act is not the only applicable law, and only applies in California.

      CMG, I think, would have had viable claims. Just not under the Astaire Act.

  2. Is there a way to obtain a permission to use a likeness via a clearing house, like Harry Fox for publishign rights? Or is it necessary to track down an attorney for each estate? Eg. an animated film using celebrity characters.

  3. I have a question.

    If I draw a star in all original setting as a political and religious statement and attain interested buyers,,

    If I make copies and sell it, does the star have the right to sue?

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