March 23, 2012 11:29am PT by Eriq Gardner
Marilyn Monroe Images Prompt New Legal Dispute
CMG Worldwide, an Indiana-based licensing agency that represents the estates of many deceased celebrities, is suddenly on a different end of the right-of-publicity spectrum.
For years, the firm has been aggressively protecting deceased celebrities' publicity rights, representing such notables as Natalie Wood, James Dean and Andy Kaufman. Because the firm helped lobby the state of Indiana to pass generous laws protecting the likeness of these stars for 100 years after death, CMG has been able to gain significant licensing income from commercial endeavors, even at times over First Amendment objections.
CMG's prized client for many years was Marilyn Monroe, but the relationship ended in 2010 after her estate sent CMG a termination letter. The parties reached an agreement, but the divorce hasn't gone smoothly, and now CMG is suing the estate, saying it's being threatened with legal action over its alleged continued exploitation of the late actress.
CMG wants a declaration that it hasn't infringed Monroe's publicity rights, that it isn't competing unfairly with the estate and that Monroe's publicity rights don't supersede copyright.
The new lawsuit comes as the Monroe estate stands up on its own.
Previously, a judge found that Monroe was domiciled in New York at the time of her death, which meant that she wouldn't enjoy publicity rights as broad because New York's laws aren't as generous to dead celebrities as Indiana's. In that case, the estate was taking on the estate of photographer Sam Shaw, who had snapped many famous images of Monroe during her lifetime. The transfer of the lawsuit to New York hurt the case and possibly hurt the estate's relationship with CMG. Eventually, Monroe's estate made a $3 million settlement with the photographer's estate and got exclusive rights to images of the blond bombshell.
Before CMG and Monroe parted ways, the firm was the estate's agent in similar litigation and other deals. In 2008, during the midst of a legal battle with One West Publishing ("One"), owners of copyrighted images of Monroe from photographers George Burris and Andre De Dienes, CMG says it paid $325,000 to settle the case. As part of the deal, it became One's licensing agent.
When the Monroe estate terminated its relationship with CMG, the parties allegedly reached a deal whereby CMG would return certain assets, including the Monroe website and Facebook page, for a cash payout.
The following year, CMG sued the estate to enforce the terms of the termination agreement. The case settled.
Neither the termination deal nor the settlement agreement is said to have addressed CMG's representation of One. CMG believes that it is permitted to carry on its work there so as to recoup its expenses to settle the One litigation.
This month, CMG got a cease-and-desist letter from the Monroe estate over its licensing and display of Marilyn Monroe products and services.
On Wednesday, in a very odd twist, CMG filed a new lawsuit against the Monroe estate in New York federal court, seeking a ruling that it hasn't done anything wrong with Monroe's likeness.