By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court has upheld the right of a Marilyn Monroe photo library to license images of the film star taken by a celebrity photographer who was one of her business partners.
Milton H. Greene Archives Inc has been in a long-running court battle with Anna Strasberg, widow of Monroe's acting coach, Lee Strasberg, and her licensing agent CMG Worldwide, which controlled use of Monroe's image for years.
In a ruling on Thursday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California backed a lower court decision that allowed Greene Archives to license its images of Monroe.
The star's estate, however, said it still retained exclusive rights to the film star's likeness under federal law.
Greene was a fashion and celebrity photographer who became friends with Monroe during a photo shoot, and the two formed a film production company. At one point, Monroe lived with Greene and his family at their Connecticut farmhouse, where he produced several photographs of the star. Greene died in 1985.
The legal battle over Greene's images hinged on where Monroe was living at the time of her death on August 5, 1962 at age 36. The court ruled Monroe resided in New York and therefore she did not have the posthumous right of publicity based on the state's law.
"Because no such right exists under New York law, Monroe LLC did not inherit it ... and cannot enforce it against Milton Greene or others similarly situated," Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the court.
Strasberg's Marilyn Monroe LLC sold its rights to the film star's persona in September 2010 to The Estate of Marilyn Monroe LLC, and Strasberg maintained a minority role.
In a statement on Thursday, the estate said the appeals court decision affected only publicity rights under state law and that its federal rights remained valid. "The Estate still enjoys the exclusive right to use Marilyn Monroe's signature, name, likeness, image, voice, or anything else associated with her persona," it said.
An attorney for Milton H. Greene Archives could not immediately be reached.
Interest in Monroe remains high. She is the subject of NBC television drama "Smash," a story about the making of a Broadway musical about the blonde bombshell, and last year's film, "My Week with Marilyn." Several books about her were released around the anniversary of her death.
Forbes magazine ranked Monroe as the third-highest money-maker in its annual ranking of "The Top-Earning Dead Celebrities," with income of $27 million in 2011, according to the court ruling.
Wardlaw wrote that the lengthy dispute over Monroe's persona "has ended in exactly the way that Monroe herself predicted more that 50 years ago," pointing to Monroe's quote: "I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else."
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Kenneth Barry and Lisa Shumaker)