Facing the Future With Marilyn

Marilyn in ‘Niagara’ (1953)

Any longtime  Marilyn fan will know the challenges we face in preserving her true legacy, and two recent news stories suggest our troubles are only beginning. Toby Walsh, a professor of Artificial Intelligence (AI), believes that by 2050 – a century after she first found fame – Marilyn will be ‘starring in movies via an avatar program that talks and acts like her, with machines having learned her speech and mannerisms from her films,’ reports The Australian.

Even more alarming is an article in The Sun about the burgeoning popularity of sex robots. ‘Marilyn comes up quite often,’ says engineer Douglas Hines, of the public requests for celebrity lookalike dolls. ‘The caveat is we need the approval of the person or family. If you wanted a robot that looked like Marilyn Monroe, you would have to have her estate approve it.’ (The idea of a ‘Marilyn Monroebot‘ was first mooted – albeit in jest – on a 2001 episode of the animated series, Futurama.)

Fortunately, Marilyn’s estate has not granted permission for a robot MM, and hopefully they never will. But how long will it take until ‘bootleg’ sex dolls hit the market? And meanwhile, CGI ‘hologram‘ Marilyns have already been seen in TV ads, with her estate planning digitalised ‘live’ shows starring Marilyn and other dead icons. They can replicate her body, but not her soul, and Monroe fans of the future will have to be ever more vigilant against degrading misrepresentations.

Monroe Estate Opposes ‘Virtual Marilyn’

'Love Nest' (1951)
‘Love Nest’ (1951)

Marilyn’s estate is at the centre of yet another legal battle, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

“Virtual Marilyn LLC says it holds copyright registrations encompassing ‘audiovisual work and character artwork depicting a computer-generated virtual actress adopting the persona of Marilyn Monroe.’

The Marilyn Monroe estate has been threatening this virtual character for some time. More than two years ago, we wrote about a volley of legal letters upon talk that ‘Virtual Marilyn’ would be taken on the road to sing and interact with live music stars.

Since then, the Marilyn Monroe estate suffered a great legal loss. In August 2012, in the midst of a battle over licensed photographs, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the estate couldn’t claim in court anymore that the legendary actress was living in California at the time of her death. She was domiciled in New York instead. While such a detail as her place of residence at the time of a drug overdose might seem trivial, New York’s publicity rights laws are far less generous than California’s. Most importantly, New York doesn’t allow post-mortem publicity rights.

So forget about publicity rights, but what about other potential claims? The Monroe estate reportedly makes up to $30 million a year in licensing income, so the question is definitely important.

According to the new lawsuit, Monroe’s estate has conveyed word that ‘use of Marilyn Monroe’s identity and persona without the Monroe Estate’s prior authorization constitutes unfair competition and false designation of origin’ — claims grounded in the Lanham Act — and that its adversary couldn’t use or license ‘marks, names, logos, designs, avatars, or the like.’

So the company now owning ‘Virtual Marilyn’ is going to court for declaratory relief, citing both the previous 9th Circuit opinion, plus more precedents, like the U.S. Supreme Court’s very important 2003 Dastar ruling, which stands for the proposition that trademarks can’t be used as perpetual swords to counter copyrighted work falling into the public domain.

‘Accordingly, in view of these appellate precedents, it is difficult to fathom that the courts would somehow accord a longer period of private protection for a trademark than the time-period that governs the underlying publicity/persona rights from which the trademark interest derives,’ states the complaint filed in New York federal court by attorney Michael Wolk.

The plaintiff has designs of its own. It’s both attempting to knock down defendants’ intellectual property grab while maintaining its own authority to obtain trademark protection on its own ‘branding rights’ associated with the CG Marilyn Monroe. A ‘fractured ownership situation’ involving Marilyn Monroe is not a problem, it argues, because disclaimers can always be used to “make it clear to consumers that the Monroe Estate has no affiliation with the Virtual Marilyn character or the Virtual Marilyn brand.’

Interestingly, it’s remarked in the lawsuit that when the late actress was living, she never registered any aspect of her persona as a trademark and was conscious about who she belonged to.

As Monroe once said, ‘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.'”

 

MM Estate Oppose ‘Virtual Marilyn Live’

 

Marilyn’s estate has threatened legal action over plans by Digicon Media to stage a concert using holograms of Monroe alongside live entertainers, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

“Digicon Media holds a copyright on “Virtual Marilyn” and plans to feature the projected blond bombshell singing and interacting alongside live music stars. But months of correspondence obtained by The Hollywood Reporter indicates that the Monroe estate is closely watching Digicon’s activities, and if the show goes on, there could be a big lawsuit.”

A statement from ABG, who represent licensing rights for Marilyn’s estate:

“The Estate is unfamiliar with Digicon Media’s capabilities as a developer and producer of digital and holographic technology, and is unaware of any successful attempt by Digicon to organize any meaningful exploitation of the crudely animated character that it claims to be a representation of Ms. Monroe and which it allegedly created in the mid-1990s.  The Estate and Authentic Brands believe that the technological advancements made since that decade allow talented developers to create superior virtual characters, akin to the virtual Marilyn Monroe character portrayed in Dior’s popular ad campaign for its J’Adore perfume.

The Estate’s cooperation is required if anyone intends to market and exploit Ms. Monroe’s identity and persona through a ‘live’ concert or otherwise, and Digicon has not secured any such cooperation from the Estate to date.'”

 

Digicon Plans ‘Virtual Marilyn’ Gig

Following the controversial recent ‘hologram’ Tupac Shakur show, Digicon Media are planning a similar event featuring Marilyn – but her estate have not yet granted permission, according to the Hollywood Reporter. (Personally, I hope it doesn’t happen – I’m far more interested in the true MM than any cyber approximation.)

“The Hollywood Reporter has learned that a ‘live’ Marilyn Monroe concert is being planned to take place before year’s end with the working title Virtual Marilyn Live — A Musical Celebration of the Birth of the Pop Icon. The concert, which has yet to secure a venue (organizers also plan to stream it on the web), will feature the projected blond bombshell singing and interacting alongside live music stars. Becky Altringer, managing director and co-founder of Digicon Media, the company doing the planning, says the event will employ the technology used at Coachella to launch virtual Marilyn’s new career as ‘a performer, spokesperson, cultural pundit and computer avatar.’

The potential new revenue stream from live holograms could boost an already lucrative business for the estates of some of the most iconic dead celebrities. Jackson raked in $170 million in 2011, according to Forbes. Presley took home $55 million. Monroe, despite having died of an apparent drug overdose nearly 50 years ago, didn’t do badly at all with $27 million. ‘I would say there could be an uptick [in revenue],’ says Mark Roesler, head of CMG Worldwide, an Indiana-based agency representing the estates of stars including Andy Kaufman and Natalie Wood. ‘Whether that is 10 or 30 or 40 percent is hard to tell, but it will be an uptick.’

Despite the enthusiasm, however, it’s far from settled what rights are needed to pull off hologram spectacles.

To adapt a performance from an existing video work, all that is typically required is a copyright on the video. But, potentially, more rights are needed for hologram performances: In many states, including California, celebrities also hold valuable ‘rights of publicity,’ which allow them to protect their images, voices and likenesses from exploitation without consent.

Has a movie star who signed a broad contract given up rights to stop a hologram? Actors and musicians usually allow studios and record labels to use their images to promote a film or album forever. Reality TV stars hand over to producers pretty much all of their rights for a chance to become famous. Some lawyers therefore believe that most existing contracts give studios the rights to create holograms if the technology merely modifies a work covered by a contract. And there are exceptions to publicity rights. They often don’t cover celebrities (like Monroe) who didn’t live in a state with such protections at the time of their death. The law also allows ‘fair use’ for new works that are ‘transformative,’ meaning they use a small amount of a celebrity’s image as part of a larger spectacle.

The coming Monroe concert could signal the type of legal fights to come.

Digicon, which says it has been developing avatars and ‘synthespians’ since 1995, is not working with the Monroe estate, as Coachella producers did with Shakur’s family. The company owns certain copyrights pertaining to Monroe, including a recent grant on her computer-generated persona, and Altringer says that might be enough. ‘We will probably end up cooperating with them, but only when they come to us,’ she explains. ‘We aren’t in a rush to deal with them because they [own] only marketing rights to old photos for merchandise. We will have our own rights for the living virtual Marilyn, who is the pop icon today.’

A rep for Monroe’s estate couldn’t be reached for comment, but it has brought several lawsuits against those who have used her image without permission. Jonathan Faber, chief executive of Luminary Group, has managed deceased celebrity estates including those of Ella Fitzgerald, Ruth and, formerly, Monroe. He says he’s unsure how courts would interpret the issue but adds he wouldn’t ‘hesitate to bring a case’ against someone who used one of his client’s images to create a touring hologram.”