Showing posts with label movies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label movies. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Opening Pandora's Box: Supreme Court Allows Archaic Copyright Infringement Cases to Proceed

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court opened Pandora's Box.

The decision that the Supreme Court may come to regret involved a copyright infringement lawsuit surrounding the script to the movie Raging Bull, which was released in 1980.  In the film, Oscar-award winning actor Robert DeNiro played boxer Jake LaMotta.  

An heir to the co-author of a 1963 screenplay about the life of the boxer apparently waited until 2009 to file a copyright lawsuit, claiming that the 1980 movie had copied portions of her father's screenplay without authorization.

The District Court in Los Angeles and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals applied the equitable doctrine of "estoppel by laches," borrowing the 3-year statute of limitations in the U.S. Copyright Act.  Those Courts both found that the writer's heir had deliberately waited to file suit, prejudicing MGM which had released the film thirty-four years ago.

However, on Monday, in an unusual 6-3 split not along ideological lines, Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority, finding that the significant delay will not bar the heir from seeking damages or an injunction on a rolling basis, going forward.

The majority reasoned that each time a new Raging Bull DVD is printed and sold, there is a new independent act of copyright infringement potentially violating the heir's copyrights. Every new DVD that is printed, every time the film is broadcast on television or the film is re-mastered or re-released, is effectively a new act of infringement subject to the 3-year window going forward, not backward.

The end result is that copyright disputes that originated thirty or forty years ago -- or even in the more distant past -- can be resurrected and instituted now.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts dissented, holding that the precedent would upset settled doctrine, and open up years of litigation over old wounds.

70-year old Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and others in Led Zeppelin presumably agree with the dissent's point of view.

In 1971, Zeppelin released the now iconic "Stairway to Heaven."  According to some estimates, the song has earned at least $562 million since its release, a number poised to rise higher since Zeppelin is set to release new versions of its albums this summer.

Relying on Monday's Raging Bull decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, Time magazine reports that a new copyright infringement lawsuit has now been filed by representatives of the band Spirit, which released an instrumental song "Taurus" in 1968.  According to the newly-filed lawsuit, Zeppelin opened for Spirit in the late 1960's, and was inspired to write the now famous guitar introduction to Stairway.

Direct evidence of copying may nonetheless be difficult to gather.  Spirit's lead guitarist Randy California died in 1997 and documents showing copying, if any, were presumably lost to the mists of time.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

When Does Copyright Law Cease Protecting a Fictional Character? (Part I)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The estate of Scottish author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has advanced a creative -- and controversial -- legal argument, in a gambit to protect its rights to continue to control licensing the fictional personae of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson, for at least several more years.

However, under more restrictive US copyright law, only Conan Doyle's works published before 1923 are now in the public domain, whereas 10 of his works published after 1923, such as the "Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes", remain squarely under US copyright protection until as late as 2022.

Many critics vehemently argue that the US copyright system, which currently grants authors' heirs a monopoly on their ancestors' written works for as long as 70 years after the author's death, is too restrictive.  In any event, the American public is now confronted with can be legally done with a partial catalog of freely available Holmes-related texts.

Statue of Sherlock Holmes in Edinburgh, Scotland
A Los Angeles-based Sherlock Holmes expert and entertainment lawyer, Leslie Klinger, recently filed a declaratory judgment suit in Chicago federal district court, seeking a ruling that the characters of Holmes and Watson are now effectively freely in the public domain for anyone to use, regardless of whether a few of Conan Doyle's final works still remain under US copyright protection.

The Conan Doyle estate argues that the entirety of these literary characters should remain under lock and key, until the final of the books' copyrights expire.  The estate bases its argument on the logic that the characters' entire personalities, including subtle quirks and flaws, were developed in later works and are therefore embedded throughout the entire corpus of Doyle's literary contributions.  To separate characters into "earlier" and "later" would be to artificially dissect them.

This interesting case raises complex issues of unsettled copyright law.  For example, if a complex literary character "evolves" throughout many different copyrighted texts written during an author's long lifetime, as each text passes into the public domain many years after her death, does only the "immature" character become free to copy, until the entire corpus has lapsed?

Alternatively, once the first of many book's copyright expires, is the entirety of the later-developed character fair game for the public to take?

The question is not entirely academic, as Conan Doyle's estate could theoretically block the making of a television show such as "Elementary," which sets the detectives in modern-day New York, unless the estate is paid a hefty royalty.  The estate could also have blocked a new movie similar to the 2009 film starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law.

On this issue, the Conan Doyle estate faces a challenging legal landscape.  In 1999, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals confronted a virtually identical issue, and refused to rule that entire characters remained under copyright monopoly when significant previous works had lapsed into the public domain.

In that case, the appellant had wanted to create an unlicensed Broadway musical using the characters of "Amos 'n' Andy." Radio programs featuring the characters from 1928 to 1948 had lapsed into the public domain.  However, several later-created television shows remained under copyright protection.

The New York-based Appeals Court found that this latter fact was not dispositive.  In that case, the Appeals Court held that Silverman, who had wanted to utilize the characters freely, "should now receive a declaration that he is entitled to use all aspects of the "Amos 'n' Andy" materials, including names, stories, and characters, to the extent that such elements of expression are contained (or, in the case of characters, to the extent delineated) in the pre-1948 radio scripts, which are in the public domain."

In other words, the fact that some later materials remained copyrighted did not entitle the copyright owners to continue to monopolize the characters, as large aspects of their personae had been developed and become public domain years earlier.

The New York-based Appeals Court also found that no valid trademark rights in the characters remained, as they were abandoned upon the radio shows passing into the public domain.  It is yet to be seen how the District Court and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Chicago, will rule on this topic in the pending Conan Doyle case.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Disney Offends Latinos With Bid to Trademark Traditional Holiday Name

On May 1, Disney filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to protect the phrase "Día de los Muertos," or "Day of the Dead," across multiple platforms. 

Disney subsidiary Pixar is apparently releasing a film -- with the working title "The Untitled Pixar Movie About Dia de los Muertos" -- this fall.

Here's the issue -- Día de los Muertos is a traditional holiday celebrated on November 1 and 2 in Mexico and across Latin America.

People honor the lives of lost family members or friends by building altars, holding processions, decorating gravesites and placing offerings for loved ones.

Based on its trademark application, Disney hoped to secure the rights to the title "Day of the Dead" and such themed merchandise as fruit preserves, fruit-based snacks, toys, games, clothing, footwear, backpacks, clocks and jewelry.

But the Latino community has raised serious questions about the application on social media.

On Tuesday, a petition was started on to stop the Disney effort, stating that the attempt to trademark Día de los Muertos was "cultural appropriation and exploitation at its worst." As of today, the petition has over 21,000 signatures.

In 2003, the Day of the Dead celebration was entered on the UNESCO list of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

"The Indigenous Festivity dedicated to the Dead are deeply rooted in the cultural life of the indigenous peoples of Mexico," UNESCO has said.

But after the backlash, Disney withdrew its application this week.

"The trademark [was] intended to protect any potential title of the movie or related activity," a spokeswoman for Disney said. "Since then, it has been determined that the title of the film will change, and therefore we are withdrawing our application for trademark registration."

Disney did not comment on whether social media reactions directly led to the decision to withdraw the application.  This isn't the first time Disney has sought to trademark a controversial phrase.

In 2011, it tried to secure "SEAL Team Six," the Navy SEAL team that captured and killed Osama bin Laden, seeking exclusive rights for use on items from video games to backpacks. However, after receiving an overwhelming response from critics, Disney withdrew the application "out of deference to the Navy."

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Evil Dead: Consequences By Default

Sam Raimi’s Renaissance Pictures has won a default judgment in a trademark infringement lawsuit filed in California federal court against an unauthorized sequel to The Evil Dead, called Evil Dead 4: Consequences.
The Evil Dead is a horror film franchise started by Sam Raimi.  The original movie was produced in 1981, which led to the release of The Evil Dead II in 1987 and Army of Darkness in 1992.  
The successful series spun off Evil Dead-related stories in other formats such as video games and comic books.  An authorized remake of the original film is reportedly in the works and will be released around Halloween 2013.
Independent film studio Award Pictures had been in production of Evil Dead 4: Consequences, when Raimi filed a trademark infringement lawsuit, alleging that the unauthorized sequel was likely to cause consumer confusion.
However, Award Pictures’ president Glenn MacCrae failed to respond to the Complaint, leading to the entry of a default judgment in Raimi's favor.
The default judgment includes a permanent injunction stopping Award Pictures from using Renaissance’s “Evil Dead” trademark for their film or using any marketing that is likely to confuse the public into believing the film is an authorized sequel.
MacCrae told The Hollywood Reporter that he was unable to pay for a lawyer to respond in court due to Raimi’s interference allegedly “destroying” a financing deal with Anchor Bay Entertainment. 
According to MacCrae, attorneys were demanding “tens of thousands of dollars” to take on the case. 
However, MacCrae has now reportedly hired a lawyer and claims that he is "very definitely contesting Renaissance’s lawsuit."

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Warner Brothers Studio Faces Legal and Public Relations Nightmare

Amidst the current news reports that The Dark Knight Rises’ actor Christian Bale made a surprise visit to the survivors of the Aurora, Colorado theater massacre, was a curious comment:

“Mr. Bale is there as himself, not representing Warner Brothers,” reportedly said an assistant to Susan Fleishman, the executive vice president for corporate communications at the movie studio.

But why would the studio seemingly want to distance itself from Mr. Bale’s charitable and apparently welcome visit?  

To be sure, the movie studio has already made a substantial donation to the victims, and is obviously not callous or indifferent to the suffering caused by the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
Carey Rottman with Christian Bale / Facebook
Rather, the answer may have more to do with the unfortunate position that Warner Brothers now faces from both a legal and public relations perspective.

First, the Warner Brothers’ “Dark Knight” franchise is regrettably forever linked as part of the Colorado shooter’s motives, as the suspect appeared in a Colorado courtroom earlier this week with hair dyed red and orange, reportedly claiming to police that he was the Joker character played by the late Heath Ledger.

Warner Brothers’ desire to at least try and keep some distance between itself and the tragedy to avoid civil liability is not based on paranoia.

Indeed, one of the shooting victims has already filed a lawsuit against the studio, alleging that the violence depicted in the Dark Knight films is a legally contributing factor to the shootings. (That same suit has also in turn blamed the lack of security at the movie theater, and the suspect’s doctor for failing to treat him properly).

Plaintiffs’ lawyers may want to take advantage of a reasonable cooling off period before firing off such lawsuits.  The criminal investigation has barely just begun, and will undoubtedly shed much more light on the suspect’s state of mind, motives and conduct in weeks and months to come.

It is worth noting that civil lawsuits blaming content creators for the criminal acts of deranged minds have a tendency to fail.  And, in fact, Colorado has precedent nearly on point:  Nintendo of America, Activision and Sony Computer Entertainment were named as defendants in a civil lawsuit filed by the families of the 13 victims killed in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

That lawsuit was aimed at 25 entertainment companies in total and sought $5 billion in damages.  Ultimately, the case was dismissed by a Colorado federal court in March 2002, with the Court finding that the media and videogame companies could not have reasonably foreseen that their products would cause the horrific events that occurred in the Columbine massacre or other acts of violence.

"Setting aside any personal distaste, as I must, it is manifest that there is social utility in expressive and imaginative forms of entertainment, even if they contain violence," District Court Judge Babcock wrote in his opinion.