New Suit Filed Over Rights to Marilyn Monroe’s Image

Nearly five decades after actress Marilyn Monroe died, the Hollywood blond bombshell still lives, at least in courtrooms in Indianapolis and across the country.

Legal battles over the rights to profit from her image and celebrity, worth millions of dollars a year, have continued from New York to California since her death in 1962.

Fishers-based celebrity licensing agency CMG Worldwide has stayed near the center of the legal action for 20 years, representing some of the primary heirs of Monroe’s last will.

However, a New York court decision in 2008 began to loosen their lock on the dead celebrity’s “post mortem right of publicity,” opening a door for Monroe’s most intimate writings and other personal effects to be sold.

In the newest lawsuit, filed in federal court in Indianapolis, CMG is suing some of the heirs who used to be the agency’s clients, plus the editor of a book about Monroe and a competing agency.

It is the latest fallout from a move early this year by Anna Strasberg, widow of Monroe’s late acting teacher Lee Strasberg, to drop CMG and sell Monroe items to another agency, Authentic Brands Group.

Jamie Salter, chief executive officer of that company, has told New York tabloids that the plan is to get Monroe’s name onto higher-quality merchandise and to use digital technology to get her into films and ad campaigns.

CMG is asking in the suit for unspecified fees believed to be in the millions of dollars from royalties and other expenses the agency says were agreed upon during the split.

Strasberg reportedly received more than $20 million for the Monroe materials from Authentic Brands, a Canadian company with offices in New York.

CMG’s website continues to show Monroe, along with James Dean and dozens of other dead celebrities, among major clients. Authentic Brands claims to represent her, too.

“We’re still in the Marilyn business,” said Mark Roesler, chairman and chief executive of CMG.

The company negotiated nearly 2,000 product licensing agreements worth millions for her estate and still represents photographers and others who have Monroe pictures or other items.

“Parties change, and the Strasberg group sold to the group from Canada. CMG remains in the intellectual property business, representing the estates of our clients, just not the Strasbergs anymore,” Roesler said.

The latest suit was filed in April in Hamilton Superior Court and then moved last week to the U.S. District Court for Southern Indiana in Indianapolis.

CMG is suing Authentic Brands Group, the Anna Freud Center, Anna Strasberg and her son David, and book editor Stanley Buchthal, plus two limited liability companies created by the defendants.

Roesler and New York attorney Terri Dipaolo, representing Authentic Brands, said the two companies have reached a private agreement, so Authentic Brands may be dropped from the suit. CMG claimed in the suit that at least $1.6 million was owed by Authentic Brands.

The Strasbergs, Buchthal and the Freud Center in London, founded by one of Monroe’s psychiatrists who was named an heir in her will, are accused of fraud and breach of contract in the breakup of CMG’s long-running representation of the estate. Their attorneys could not be reached for comment.

Monroe’s career was the stuff of Hollywood legend. Nude photos of the young Monroe graced the cover and inside pages of the first issue of Playboy magazine, launching her and the entertainment empire of Hugh Hefner.

Monroe was married three times before she died at age 36. The first was when she was 16, after a childhood of orphanages and foster homes. The second was in 1954, to Yankees slugger Joe DiMaggio. He third marriage was in 1956 to playwright Arthur Miller, who suggested she study acting with Lee Strasberg in New York.

Strasberg taught a method system that required actors to tap into their deep emotions. That sent Monroe into psychoanalysis with Dr. Marianne Kris, who later founded the Freud Center.

Little has been simple about Marilyn Monroe’s legal affairs since she died in her Brentwood, Calif., home on Aug. 5, 1962. Fights to control her image have led to new laws and legal precedents affecting other celebrities, and courts of appeal in two states are still reviewing cases.

Since there is no federal law creating a right to control the publicity of dead celebrities, CMG’s Roesler said, the company has been asking states to pass laws for the past 30 years. About half have adopted related laws, and Indiana has one of the strongest, giving the estates of celebrities the right to publicity for 100 years after their deaths.