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Case involving the copyright of the "Rocky" characters and whether Stallone violated a writer's copyright of Rocky IV. Cases of Interest Cases of Interest >  IP >  Copyright
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Anderson v Sylvester Stallone

Jordan Herrick

Anderson v. Sylvester Stallone, 1989 WL 206431 (C.D. Cal.)

Facts: Δ, Stallone, is a famous actor who starred in and wrote the scripts for Rocky I, II, & III. In 1982, Δ informed the press that he intended to write a fourth movie and was thinking about making it based off of world events, the Cold War, and maybe having it involve a United States fighter going to Russia to fight the Russian Red. In June 1982, after viewing Rocky III, π, who had no connection to the previous movies or the Δ, wrote a treatment entitled Rocky IV. The treatment incorporated the characters that Δ created in the previous movies. Π (who is an attorney and was accompanied by an attorney) met with MGM executives to discuss the possibility of his treatment being used as the basis for the Rocky IV script. The studio executives suggested that he sign a release to relieve MGM from liability stemming form use of the treatment. In April 1984, π requested compensation for the alleged use of his treatment in the forthcoming Rocky IV movie. In July 1984, Δ discussed his script on the Today Show. Π felt that Δ was discussing the story that he had written. Δ completed the Rocky IV script in October 1984 and the film was released in November 1985.

Procedural History: π filed suit against Δ in January 1987 claiming breach of confidence and copyright infringement. Δ moved for summary judgment.

Issue: Was the Δ script and eventual movie a copyright infringement on the π treatment that he had written before Δ wrote the script?

Rule: In order for a π to win a copyright infringement claim, π must prove that he owns the copyright and that the Δ copied the π’s copyrighted work.

Holding: No. The court concluded that the Δ’s script and movie did not infringe any copyright protection of the π Rocky IV treatment. Thus, the court granted the Δ’s motion for summary judgment.

Reasoning: The court granted the Δ motion for summary judgment based on two separate grounds. First, the court said that the π treatment is an infringing work that is not entitled to copyright protection. Second, the court said that Rocky IV is not substantially similar to π treatment, and no reasonable jury could find that Rocky IV is a picturization of π script. The court reasoned that the characters in the Rocky movies are some of the most recognizable and one of the most highly delineated groups of characters in modern American cinema. Also, the court said that the interrelationships between the characters are the central parts of all of the movies. The court thus concluded that the Rocky characters are delineated so extensively that they are protected from bodily appropriation when taken as a group and transposed into a sequel by another author. The court also stated that π did not put forth any evidence to rebut the Δ’s showing that Rocky characters are so highly delineated that they warrant copyright protection. Next, the court found that the characters were so highly developed and central to the movie that they constituted the “story being told.” The court came to this conclusion because the movies revolve around the characters, their development, and their relationships and does not revolve around intricate plots or story lines. The court said that the same evidence which supports the findings of delineation of the characters supports the findings that the characters are the “story being told.” The court concluded that since Δ owns the copyrights for the first three Rocky movies, he has the exclusive right to prepare derivative works and that Δ treatment is an unauthorized derivative work and that π actually infringed Δ copyright.

Critical Analysis: I agree with the court’s decision. In a situation like this where the characters are so important to the storyline and any sequels require the need for these characters, it is important that the original author has the exclusive right to these characters. This was not a situation where the characters in the original story were so ordinary and average that they are not creative and any author could use them in a story, but a situation where the characters are the story and without them there really is no point to make the movie. Thus, it is clear that Stallone’s characters should receive protection and that he should have the right to decide how the characters are used and exclude others from using them.

Future Impact: This has great impact on Hollywood and anyone who wants to write or create movies. It is highly protective of creativity and making sure that original authors receive as many rights as possible. Sometimes it is not enough for the story to be protected, but the characters that the author creates too must be protected. This will help future authors and current authors who create highly creative characters from having them stolen and put into other movies that they had nothing to do with and allow them to develop more movies or projects with those characters. This also has an impact on the current online world of “fan fiction,” where fans make up stories using characters from highly popular works, such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Twilight, etc. If the authors of those characters want to decide to put a stop to the fan fiction, this case will help them by showing that they own the copyright on the characters that the fans are making up stories with on those websites.


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