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MAR
20
2 YEARS

Dispute Over Who Owns 'La Dolce Vita' Getting Hot and Steamy

A judge will soon determine whether the question of ownership on Fellini's 1960 film should be decided at an early stage or at trial.

FAVORITE FILMS: "La Dolce Vita" (1960)
Everett Collection
"La Dolce Vita"

About five years ago, Federico Fellini's classic film La Dolce Vita was remade as the most expensive gay porn film ever. Few would have imagined that the remake would prompt a long-running legal threesome over who owns rights to the original 1960 film.

After Michael Lucas' La Dolce Vita was made by Lucas Films, the company was sued by International Media Films, which maintained it own a copyright to Fellini's film. A judge later ruled that IMF didn't show sufficient admissible evidence that it indeed was the copyright owner. Nevertheless, IMF continued to maintain it had the right to license the Fellini film in the U.S., which prompted a lawsuit from Paramount last November. The studio says it, and not IMF, is the title-holder.

The case is now nearing an important preliminary ruling that will help determine who, if anyone, gets to enjoy legal ownership over one of cinema's most celebrated screen gems.

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IMF never got to trial in its case against Lucas Films claiming that in making a knockoff of the film that popularized the orgy, the adult entertainment company infringed its rights.

Instead, the case got bogged down on the question of how the chain of custody in the copyright had passed on La Dolce Vita in the 50-plus years since it was first produced. IMF had its theory that the film's rights were sold and resold and resold and so forth, passing through about a half dozen companies throughout the world. But Lucas Films, relying on some big assistance from Paramount, presented an alternative chain of custody and questioned the authenticity of decades-old Italian contracts offered up by IMF.

Eventually, the judge threw his hands in the air, ruling that IMF hadn't established its rights and noting casually that "it is possible for the Fellini film to be in the public domain."

Far from ending the matter, the dispute between IMF and Paramount only became more intense thereafter. Understandable too, since the film's 50-year anniversary prompted both companies to make theatrical re-releases and special edition DVDs and Blu-Rays.

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Upon that happening, IMF allegedly demanded Paramount's theatrical distributors stop showing the film, demanded Paramount's home entertainment partners stop distributing the film, and demanded other entertainment companies that have licensed from Paramount the right to use clips from the movie to also stop. So Paramount sued, having seen enough of IMF's cease and desist letters throughout the film industry.

Late last month, the studio submitted a motion for partial judgment, saying that the judge should find in its favor because the New York judge in the Lucas case had determined that IMF had failed to establish its copyright ownership of La Dolce Vita. In technical terms, Paramount said that IMF was barred by collateral estoppel from relitigating its claim that it owned the film. "A litigant is not entitled to a 'second bite at the apple' merely because it failed to meet its burden of proof in the first action," said Paramount in its motion.

But on Monday, IMF hit back by saying that Paramount is overplaying what happened in the dispute over the porn film.

"It is important to note what the New York Court's Order does not say," wrote IMF about the Lucas decision in opposition papers to Paramount's motion. "Nowhere in its opinion does it conclude that IMF's title to the Film is invalid, or that IMF's supporting documents are not authentic, or that IMF does not own rights to the Film. Rather, the SDNY court's ruling was based upon a narrow application of Rule of Evidence §1003 to a plaintiff who lacks original documentation and yet has the burden of proof in opposing summary judgment."

And IMF takes a shot at Paramount for its passive-aggressive approach towards claiming ownership over La Dolce Vita.

Paramount allegedly played a big role in the Lucas case from behind. IMF argues that Paramount could have joined the case as a party but didn't because it wanted to shield itself from any potential adverse judgment. In other words, Paramount helped Lucas gather evidence, and let its vp business affairs submit to a deposition, but wouldn't go so far as intervenng as an official party in that lawsuit over a porn film for fear that if IMF prevailed, it would destroy Paramount's own claims over La Dolce Vita. As a result, IMF believes that Paramount's collateral estoppel claims aren't particularly potent.

Instead, IMF thinks that the chain of title are triable issues, and if a judge accepts this theory, it could mean a jury trial that looks into the 50-plus year history of La Dolce Vita, including the various agreements that allowed the film to be distributed around the world. Many international film experts would be called in such an affair. It would be a cinephile's dream come true.

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner