Netflix Hit With Copyright Lawsuit Over Classic Italian Film 'Bicycle Thief'

The film is in the public domain, but an English subtitled version might not be.
Courtesy of TRIWORLD FILMS

Netflix is now caught up in a lawsuit of international scope, involving the 1948 Italian film Bicycle Thief and the complexities of both copyright and contract law when it comes to foreign works of authorship.

The movie, directed by Vittorio De Sica and hailed by many critics as one of the greatest of all time, was determined three decades ago to be in the public domain, thanks to the fact that two parties who were warring with each other over rights both failed to file for a renewal of the copyright.

In a lawsuit filed in New York federal court, Corinth Films acknowledges the 1985 court ruling, but nods to how the judge at that time noted the possibility that the dubbed or subtitled version of the pic — a derivative work — may still be under copyright even if the underlying film itself was free to be used by anyone.

This, shall we say, marks a bit of copyright neorealism now in play in the present lawsuit.

As those who followed the legal war over Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita know, chain-of-title issues on classic Italian cinema can be a labyrinthian exercise in navigating layer upon layer of dealmaking. The situation regarding Bicycle Thief seems no exception, with producers assigning rights to companies who then made other distribution deals.

According to the complaint (read here), an employee of the company that assigned rights to Corinth translated the dialogue into English for the purpose of subtitles. That company is said to have placed copyright notices on the film and also made registrations of copyrights, though the validity of those actions surely will be challenged.

The lawsuit says that in 2010, Cinevision licensed exhibition rights to Cinedigm, which in turn licensed rights to Netflix to stream.

In August, Netflix heard from Corinth and sought indemnification, according to the complaint. Cinevision apparently wrote the plaintiff last month with its own ownership claims based on a 2003 quitclaim agreement with other parties. 

"At no time have defendants contacted the plaintiff in order to seek its license for the Internet exhibition of the picture, either in whole or in excerpted portions," states the complaint. "Despite lacking any rights to exhibit the English subtitled version of the picture, defendants act as though they have exhibition rights."

Corinth appears to nod to a copyright notice on the film being streamed as evidence that it holds rights on this particular version of Bicycle Thief. The plaintiff, represented by attorney Gregory Sioris, is demanding an injunction and monetary damages both for copyright infringement as well as false designation of origin.

Update 1/15: The parties have told the court they have settled the dispute.

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