Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Two New Copyright Rulings Worth Noting – (A “Precious” Pooh-Pooh)

Two new rulings from the last few days are worth mentioning:

A Copyright Transfer Requires a “Precious” Written Document -- The first involves the right to distribute the new movie “Precious,” which had led to a legal squabble between producer Harvey Weinstein (and his company, the Weinstein Co.) and Lionsgate Films. In a nutshell, following the film’s screening at the Sundance Film Festival in January, both Weinstein and Lionsgate came away believing that they had purchased the right to distribute the movie from director Lee Daniels. According to Weinstein, an independent film sales agent sold "Precious" to the Weinstein Co. before agreeing to selling that right to Lionsgate when Lionsgate offered a better deal. Not surprisingly, the two production companies sued one another over this issue. In fact, four separate lawsuits have been filed over this issue.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald whittled this down a bit by dismissing one of the four lawsuits. Specifically, in action brought by Weinstein against the film's producers, Smokewood Entertainment Group, the Court ruled that Weinstein had never acquired a copyright interest in the film (including that portion of the copyright “bundle of rights” that the distribution company would need to obtain in order to distribute the film) because it never obtained a written contract for distribution purposes. That is, because a writing is a required when a copyright is transferred to another party, the absence of a written contract equated to the absence of a written copyright assignment. "A signed writing is required to effectuate a transfer of copyright ownership," the Court said. "To the extent that [Weinstein Co.] alleges a purely oral agreement for the exclusive licensing and distribution rights to 'Push,' that claim clearly fails as a matter of law."

Pooh-poohing Your Claim to Copyright Ownership – After nearly two decades of legal battles, U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper granted the Walt Disney Co.’s motion to dismiss a copyright and trademark infringement claim brought by the family of Stephen Slesinger, which claims to hold the merchandising rights to Winnie the Pooh.

Mr. Slesinger acquired these rights from A.A. Milne in 1930, but after he died, his widow assigned those rights to Disney. Disney took the intelligently written children’s stories and turned them into what most children now think of as Winnie the Pooh. In her ruling last week, Judge Cooper determined that Disney -- not the Slesinger family -- controlled those IP rights. "Stephen Slesinger Inc. transferred all of its rights in the Pooh works to Disney, and may not now claim infringement of any retained rights," Cooper wrote in her ruling. That ruling effectively concludes the two existing lawsuits between Disney and the Slesinger family, clearing the way for Disney to merchandise Pooh as it seems fit. The Court, however, ruled that Disney must continue to pay royalties to the Slesinger family when any of the Pooh characters are used in movies and merchandise.