Court To Film Director: You Must First Create An Infringing Work Before We Can Discuss Whether Or Not It's Actually Infringing

from the take-this-loaded-gun,-press-it-to-your-temple-and-await-further-instructions dept

Is there anything more gloriously effed-up than IP law? I submit to you there is not. Here's the sub-headline for Eriq Gardner's Hollywood Reporter article, which deftly sums up the predicament facing a filmmaker looking to make a movie based on an old Buck Rogers novella.

Don Murphy can only clear rights if he potentially violates them first.
That's the ruling boiled down to a dozen words. The details, while enlightening, do nothing to change the underlying fact that Murphy may have to get sued for copyright infringement before he's allowed to prove he isn't infringing on anything.

That's not the only conundrum Murphy's facing. The other is this: no studio wants to touch the project until the rights have been sorted out. Murphy announced his plans to make a film based on "Armageddon 2419 A.D." at last year's Comic Con. The book was published in 1928. Murphy believes the copyright on the book and characters expired in 1956.

Quite obviously, the trust presiding over the original publisher's estate feels differently. The Dille Trust told Murphy the property must be licensed -- despite offering no proof that the copyright was still valid and despite one of the trust's beneficiaries (Robert Dille) being on board as a co-writer.

So, Murphy did what others have done: sued to have the work declared in the public domain. The problem is he hasn't infringed on the possibly uninfringeable work. The court, relying on a 2007 Supreme Court decision, basically tells Murphy he must start making this possibly-infringing work before it can start addressing his public domain claims.

Looking at the Buck Rogers case, Conti applies the Supreme Court's holding by questioning whether the dispute rises to an actual controversy from "immediacy" and "reality."
Regarding immediacy, Conti writes:

"In this case, the amended complaint does not contain specific, or even approximate, allegations about when plaintiff could begin film production, let alone release the allegedly infringing film, assuming a declaratory judgment is entered in plaintiff’s favor. A dispute 'lacks immediacy' where there are no allegations about 'when, if ever,' the product will be 'used in a manner that could potentially infringe' the intellectual property rights of another. Plaintiff’s nebulous allegations that 'development of the [film] is well underway' and that 'further production efforts could be undertaken in short order' are conclusory and insufficient to show the immediacy required by Article III."

Examining reality, Conti continues:

"At this early stage, the production and release of plaintiff’s film are 'contingent future event[s]' that may not occur 'as anticipated' or 'indeed may not occur at all.' As pleaded by plaintiff, the film project is still in an inchoate stage. Plaintiff does not allege it hired or entered into preliminary agreements with the parties 'integral to the commencement of production'—let alone the release—of a 'major motion picture.'... Plaintiff received 'preliminar[y,] . . . firm interest' in the project from Warner Brothers and Sony. Without allegations of actual commitment or intent to commit—through, for example, letters of intent—plaintiff’s vague, equivocal assertions fail to demonstrate the reality of this dispute. Plaintiff does not allege it entered into finalized, or even preliminary, financing, acquisition, licensing, or distribution agreements with these companies in connection with its potential film."
The Supreme Court decision being cited to put Murphy in the awkward position of having to roll the dice on copyright infringement has nothing to do with copyright. It's all about patents. And it's actually a good decision.
The latest ruling is in the MedImmune/Genentech case looking at whether or not licensing a patent means you can't challenge its validity. Genentech (and plenty of other patent holders) claimed that once you licensed a patent, you were basically saying that you agreed to its validity, and could no longer challenge it. The lower court agreed. This is problematic in a lot of ways, especially with the rise in patent extortion lawsuits, where it's often cheaper to just license the patent rather than fight it. MedImmune licensed the patent early on, rather than waste money fighting it, but challenged it later on when the patent in question became much more important (and the license much more expensive). With an 8 to 1 decision, the Supreme Court sided with MedImmune, saying that licensing a patent shouldn't preclude challenging that patent's validity. Another small step in the right direction.
And yet, here we are, looking at a director being asked to set himself for a lawsuit by the Dille Trust in order to prove he doesn't owe it anything. And in order to do that, he needs to convince a studio to walk across this IP minefield with him -- something no studio in its right mind would ever be willing to do.

The court has given him permission to file an amended complaint, but it's unclear what purpose that will serve under the Supreme Court's MedImmune decision. The only sensible response is to let the idea die. No studio will back a project based on a disputed property and no director is going to put the work in just to be hit with an injunction and statutory damages if the trust comes up with proof it still holds the copyright.

On the other hand, all the Dille Trust has to do is continue to insist it owns the property… even if it doesn't. That's it. Hail copyright.

Filed Under: buck rogers, copyright, don murphy, public domain, standing

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  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 24 Mar 2016 @ 11:38am

    Re: Re:

    Try suggesting mandatory registration requirements though and you get people whining about how it's just too much work, and an unfair burden and all that rot, as though the idea that copyright owners might actually have to do something to gain all the perks of copyright ownership is just asking too much.

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