Ninth Circuit Resolves Dispute Over Ownership of Marilyn Monroe's Right of Publicity By Applying Judicial Estoppel

In a long-running dispute over ownership of Marilyn Monroe's right of publicity, the Ninth Circuit ultimately resolved the dispute through application of judicial estoppel, concluding that New York law applied to the question, that New York law did not provide for a posthumous right of publicity, and therefore Marilyn Monroe LLC did not inherit that right and could not enforce it against others.

The case began in 2005 when Marilyn Monroe LLC and its licensee ("Monroe LLC") sued Milton Greene Archives, Inc. and Tom Kelley Studios, Inc. ("Milton Greene") in Indiana, claiming ownership of Marilyn Monroe's right of publicity and alleging that Milton Greene was violating that right by using Monroe's image and likeness for commercial purposes without authorization.

Milton Greene then sued Monroe LLC and others in California seeking, in part, a declaration that Monroe LLC did not own Marilyn Monroe's right of publicity.

The cases were later consolidated in the Central District of California.

In May 2007, the Central District of California granted summary judgment in favor of Milton Greene, holding that Monroe LLC did not own Marilyn Monroe's right of publicity because at the time of her death in 1962, under either New York or California law, no right of publicity could have passed through her will.  Thus, because Monroe LLC had not inherited Marilyn Monroe's right of publicity, the district court concluded that it had no standing to assert those rights against Milton Greene.

In June 2007, in direct response to the Central District of California's decision, a California state senator introduced a bill, which was enacted in September 2007, that amended California law

to provide that the California statutory right of publicity is deemed to have existed at the time of death of any deceased personality who died before January 1, 1985; is a property right, freely transferable and descendible; and, in the absence of an express testamentary transfer, could pass through the residual clause in the will of the deceased personality.

Monroe LLC then sought reconsideration of the grant of summary judgment to Milton Greene based on this change in California law.

The Central District of California granted the motion for reconsideration but again granted summary judgment in favor of Milton Greene.  The issue came down to whether California or New York law applied, which in turn would be decided based on where Monroe was domiciled at the time of her death.  If she was domiciled in California, that state's law would apply and the amendment to the law permitted Monroe's right of publicity to pass to Monroe LLC through the residual clause of her will.  But if she was domiciled in New York, that state's law would apply and because "the New York legislature had rejected Monroe LLC's efforts to amend its laws to enact a similar descendible, posthumous right of publicity," Marilyn Monroe's right of publicity would have been extinguished at her death.  Ultimately, the district court concluded that judicial estoppel precluded Monroe LLC from arguing that Marilyn Monroe was domiciled in California when she died, that therefore New York law applied, and summary judgment in favor of Milton Greene was appropriate.

Although it took the long route, the Ninth Circuit ultimately agreed with the Central District of California, stating that "[t]his is a textbook case for applying judicial estoppel":

Monroe's representatives took one position on Monroe's domicile at death for forty years, and then changed their position when it was to their great financial advantage; an advantage they secured years after Monroe's death by convincing the California legislature to create rights that did not exist when Monroe died.  Marilyn Monroe is often quoted as saying, "If you're going to be two-faced, at least make one of them pretty."  There is nothing pretty in Monroe LLC's about-face on the issue of domicile.  Monroe LLC is judicially estopped from taking the litigation position that Monroe died domiciled in California.  Our conclusion in this regard is guided by the need to preserve the dignity of judicial proceedings that have taken place over the last forty years and to discourage litigants from "playing fast and loose with the courts."

(footnote omitted).  The Ninth Circuit's opinion details at some length Monroe LLC's "about-face" on the issue of Marilyn Monroe's domicile at the time of her death.

Thus, the Ninth Circuit concluded that Marilyn Monroe died domiciled in New York, New York law applied to the question whether Monroe LLC had the right to enforce her posthumous right of publicity, and because no such right exists under New York law, Monroe LLC could not enforce the right against Milton Greene or "others similarly situated."

The case cite is Milton H. Greene Archives, Inc. v. Marilyn Monroe LLC, Case Nos. 08-56471, 08-56472 (9th Cir. Aug. 30, 2012).

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