Ninth Circuit: Heirs of "Pink Panther" coauthor do not retain interest in copyright in the films

June 25, 2008
Post by Blog Staff

In a decision last week, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in a copyright case, holding that a coauthor of a story treatment is not necessarily a coauthor of a motion picture produced based on that treatment, and the factors applied to determine coauthorship led to the conclusion that the coauthor of the treatment was not a coauthor of the motion picture.

In this case, that meant the heirs of one coauthor of the treatment that formed the basis for the film "The Pink Panther" could not assert an interest in the copyright in the motion picture. Likewise, renewal of the copyright in the motion picture had no effect on the copyright of the treatment, as its copyright is separate and distinct under the law. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment.More on Richlin v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Inc. after the jump.In 1962, Maurice Richlin and Blake Edwards wrote a treatment for a movie which would eventually become The Pink Panther (originally titled The Pink Rajah). The treatment had named many of the characters and outlined a basic plot theme. After the completion of the treatment, the authors entered into an employment agreement with the Mirisch Corporation to write an actual screenplay for the movie as a work made for hire. Later, they assigned their rights in "that certain story (which term shall cover all literary material written by [Richlin and Edwards] in connection therewith including any adaptations, treatments, scenarios, dialogue, scripts and/or screenplays) entitled: 'Pink Rajah' also entitled or known as 'Pink Panther'" to Mirisch, and also provided that Mirisch may use their names as authors. The movie was released in 1963 and carried a copyright date of that same year, and was followed by nine sequels (A Shot in the Dark, Inspector Clouseau, The Return of the Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Revenge of the Pink Panther, Trail of the Pink Panther, Curse of the Pink Panther, Son of the Pink Panther, as well as the ill-conceived 2006 remake, The Pink Panther) and another upcoming sequel, The Pink Panther 2. The treatment was never registered. The motion picture's copyright was timely renewed in 1991, and eventually came to be owned by MGM, the defendant in this case.Richlin died in 1990. His heirs brought the instant suit seeking declaratory relief and an accounting for the alleged 50 percent interest Richlin had in the treatment, and therefore the worked derived therefrom, including the films. The Richlin heirs pursued two different legal theories. First, they claimed that because the movie was published, copyrighted, and renewed, the treatment was also published, copyrighted, and renewed. Second, they argued that Richlin should be considered as a coauthor of the movie, because he was a coauthor of the treatment. The district court granted summary judgment against Richlin's heirs under both theories, and the heirs appealed.The Ninth Circuit affirmed. Turning first to the issue of coauthorship, the court rejected the heirs' claim that Richlin was a coauthor of the motion picture by virtue of his coauthorship of the treatment. The court noted that while the 1909 Act applied to the claim of joint authorship, that Act did not mention the concept. However, the concept was well-defined in case law, and the Copyright Act of 1976 incorporated that case law when it was enacted. As a result, cases interpreting the definition of "joint work" under the 1976 Act were relevant. The Ninth Circuit applies a three part test for determining joint authorship under § 101 of the 1976 Act from its 2000 decision in Aalmuhammed v. Lee:

  1. Whether the Putative coauthors made objective manifestations of a shared intent to be coauthors (a contract on the issue is dispositive)
  2. Whether the alleged author superintended the work by exercising control (often the most important factor)
  3. Whether "the audience appeal of the work" can be attributed to both authors and whether "the share of each in its success cannot be appraised."

Applying these standards, the court easily concluded Richlin was a coauthor of the treatment. However, it was not the treatment which is at issue, but the motion picture. Analyzing the motion picture, the court held Richlin failed the first and second requirements. The assignment made it clear that there was no "manifestation of shared intent to be coauthors," and the contract language is dispositive on the issue of intent. Richlin also never had the ability to exercise any control over the movie. However, both the district court and this court agreed that Richlin did satisfy the third factor, because the development of the characters and plot line certainly led to some of the audience appeal (although the court also credited "Peter Sellers's legendary comedic performance, Henry Mancini's memorable score, or Blake Edwards's award-winning direction"). Because the two "primary" Aalmuhammed factors weighed against a finding of joint authorship, the court affirmed the district court's conclusion that Richlin was not a joint author of the motion picture. As a result, the heirs could not conceivably have a renewal interest in the motion picture, and their claims failed under this theory.The court then moved on to the legal significance of publication of the motion picture on the copyright of the treatment. In their argument, Richlin's heirs attempted to show that because portions of the treatment were incorporated into the motion picture, those portions should be granted copyright protection based on the publication of the motion picture with notice in 1963. Further, because Richlin died before the vesting of the renewal rights, those rights, while preserved by MGM's renewal of the motion picture copyright, reverted back to them. The court again did not agree. The assignment from Richlin was valid under California common law copyright (which governed transfer of unpublished works before the 1976 Act), giving Mirisch the common law copyright in the Treatment before publication. When the motion picture was published, so were those portions of the treatment that were incorporated into the motion picture. However, because the treatment itself was never independently published, its statutory copyright under the 1909 Act never vested. The Copyright Office had also rejected this legal theory, taking the position that under the 1909 Act, an unpublished underlying work (such as the treatment) incorporated into a statutorily copyrighted motion picture is not protected by statutory copyright independent of the motion picture's copyright. As a result, the court affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment.To read the full decision in Richlin v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Inc., click here.

Bill Patry provides his thoughts on the case here.

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