Monday, July 14, 2008
Court: Author’s Daughter May Reclaim ‘Lassie’ Copyright
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
A daughter of the man who created Lassie is entitled to reclaim the copyright, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
Seventy years after Eric Knight penned his tale about a devoted collie who struggled to find her way home to the little boy who loved her, the panel unaimously held that the Copyright Act’s termination of transfer right could not be extinguished by Winifred Knight Mewborn’s post-1978 re-grant of the very rights she had assigned in 1976, reversing the district court’s contrary conclusion.
Knight authored the children’s story “Lassie Come Home,” which was first published in 1938 and registered with the U.S. Copyright Office the same year. Knight also granted the rights to make the Lassie television series to Classic Media Inc.’s predecessor in interest, but died in 1943 before the rights had vested.
Under the 1909 Copyright Act, the interest in the renewal term of the copyrights reverted to Knight’s wife and three daughters, including Mewborn.
Classic’s predecessor obtained an agreement from Mewborn in 1976, assigning her a 25 percent share of the motion picture, television and radio rights in the Lassie works. Classic’s predecessor obtained the remaining shares from Knight’s other heirs in 1978, and furnished a second agreement to Mewborn at that time.
Mewborn signed the later agreement, which purported to transfer the identical motion picture, television and radio rights as the 1976 assignment, as well as recording and dramatic rights, all merchandising, commercial tie-up and related rights, and certain publication rights, “to the extent that such rights are owned by me.”
Meanwhile, Congress enacted the 1976 Copyright Act, which took effect on January 1, 1978. The act created a right of termination allowing an author or his or her heirs to recapture any rights that had been transferred to third parties before the act’s effective date.
Twenty years later, Mewborn served a notice of termination, seeking to recapture her motion picture, television and radio rights by terminating the 1976 assignment.
Classic responded with what Ninth Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw called a “vituperative gem,” which “began the Lassie Works’ difficult journey home, as counsel on behalf of the parties—but predominantly Classic—spewed acrimonious charges, threats and demands over the rights to the works.”
Classic subsequently filed a declaratory relief action in the Central District of California against Mewborn, seeking a declaration that Mewborn has no interest in any of the rights she previously assigned, and that Mewborn’s termination notice was ineffective.
Mewborn counterclaimed seeking a declaration that she had recaptured some of her previously assigned rights.
The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner of the Central District of California determined that Mewborn had relinquished her termination right by entering into the 1978 agreement and district court granted Classic’s motion for summary judgment, denying Mewborn’s motion as moot.
Writing for the appellate court, Wardlaw reasoned that the 1976 assignment had transferred all of Mewborn’s motion picture, television and radio rights to the Lassie works, as the district court had found, and this earlier agreement was neither substituted nor revoked by the later agreement.
However, Wardlow continued, under the 1976 agreement, Classic’s predecessor owned the motion picture, television and radio rights to the Lassie works in 1978, which rendered the language in the 1978 assignment purporting to assign the motion picture, television and radio rights a nullity, and left Mewborn with nothing to transfer by virtue of the later assignment other than the additional ancillary rights named therein that she had not assigned in 1976.
Because Mewborn had transferred her interest in the motion picture, television and radio rights for the Lassie works before 1976, Wardlow concluded Mewborn had validly terminated those rights.
Judges Ferdinand F. Fernandez and visiting District Judge Raner C. Collins of Arizona joined Wardlaw in her opinion.
Marc Toberoff and Nicholas C. Williamson of the Law Offices of Marc Toberoff, PLC represented Classic Media.
Bonnie E. Eskenazi and Aaron J. Moss of Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP represented Mewborn.
The cases are Classic Media, Inc. v. Mewborn, 06-55385 and 06-55704.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company