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Classic Film Museum Inc. v. Warner Bros. Inc.

453 F.Supp. 852 (D.C.Me.,1978)

Facts: Classic Film Museum (“Plaintiff”) is in the business of licensing and renting films for exhibition. One of the films in Plaintiff’s catalog is the 1937 version of A Star is Born, produced by David O. Selznick and starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. Warner Bros. (“Defendant”) is a motion picture studio that purchased the rights to “the film, the story, the screenplay, and the score” from Selznick in 1953 in order to produce a “remake” starring Judy Garland and James Mason. In 1965, the 1937 version’s statutory copyright expired and the Plaintiff began to license and rent copies of the 1937 film. In 1974, the Defendant sent Plaintiff a letter claiming that Plaintiff was violating Defendant’s common law copyright in the story, screenplay, and score of A Star is Born by offering rentals of the 1937 version.

Procedure: Plaintiff brought suit seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, monetary damages, costs, and attorneys' fees against Defendant for alleged unfair competition in violation of the copyright and antitrust laws. Defendant counterclaimed against Plaintiff for alleged copyright infringement, conversion and unfair competition. Defendant sought declaratory and injunctive relief, monetary damages, costs, attorneys' fees. Defendant also requested the return of all positive prints of the 1937 possessed by the Plaintiff.

Rules:
- A common-law copyright arises on creation of an original literary or artistic work and protects the copyright proprietor from unauthorized publication, exhibition, or similar exploitation of the work.

- A common-law copyright is lost upon the copyright proprietor's publication of the matter so protected.

- When a derivative work passes into the public domain while a copyright still exists in the underlying material, only the new matter in the derivative version is dedicated to the public use. G. Ricordi & Co. v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 189 F.2d 469 (2d Cir. 1952).

- A copyright obtained pursuant to federal statute, of course, exists for a finite period only, and, constitutionally, must be restricted as to length of time.

Holding/Analysis: The court held that the expiration of the Defendant's statutory copyright in the 1937 version placed the entire film in the public domain. The Defendant claimed that the story, screenplay, and had never been “published” as defined in the statute and therefore, they still retained a common law copyright in the story, screenplay, and score of the 1937 version. Because of the common law copyright, the Defendant claimed that Ricordi denied Plaintiffs the right to rent the 1937 version without Defendant’s consent. Defendant felt that under Ricordi, only novel/new parts of the 1937 film were in the public domain and that the underlying story, screenplay, and score were still their property protected by common law copyright.
However, the court distinguished Ricordi, stating in that case the underlying material had a statutory copyright and not a common-law copyright like the Defendant had here. Because of this distinction, the court felt it was unnecessary to rule on Defendant’s assertion that they had a valid common law copyright. Furthermore, the court felt that Defendant’s position would improperly expand the length of copyright against the wishes of Congress. A ruling for the Defendant would tie up works much longer than the Congress had intended, especially for copyrights under the 1947 Act, which had an indefinite term for common law copyrights. Therefore, the court dismissed the counterclaim against, and ultimately found in favor of, the Plaintiff.
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