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Indy firm loses Marilyn Monroe rights case

Michael W.
March 19, 2008
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CMG Worldwide Inc. suffered a significant legal setback Monday when a federal judge ruled that Fishers-based CMG and a company it represents, Marilyn Monroe LLC, do not own Marilyn Monroe's publicity rights.

The California ruling could be a massive blow to CMG. Monroe's likeness on everything from TV commercials to T-shirts generated about $30 million in sales between 1994 and 2006; about a fourth of the revenue landed at CMG.

CEO Mark Roesler was out of town and couldn't be immediately reached today for comment.

However, an Indianapolis attorney who formerly represented CMG and has handled Monroe litigation says the ruling is disappointing from iconic and legal standpoints.

In effect, the ruling tossed ownership rights to the public, said Jonathan Polak, who leads the intellectual property group at Sommer Barnard.

"Marilyn Monroe is one of the heavyweight celebrities in the licensing business and she has generated significant licensing revenues, but the court has essentially unleashed the right of publicity for Marilyn to the public domain," Polak said. "This is a sad day for those of us practicing in this area."

The case started in Indiana but was transferred to and consolidated in California District Court in 2005.

Marilyn Monroe LLC is owned by Anna Strasberg, the wife of Monroe's former acting coach. Strasberg argued that publicity rights passed to her late husband after Monroe's death.

CMG and Marilyn Monroe LLC claimed that photographers Milton H. Greene and Tom Kelley had infringed their rights. Green and Kelley's photos helped catapult Monroe into stardom and include a nude shot of her on a red velvet cloth published in Playboy magazine's inaugural issue in 1953.

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