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A federal appeals court in San Francisco has rejected an appeal by heirs of screenwriter Maurice Richlin that they own a copyright interest in “Pink Panther.”
In 1962, Richlin coauthored the story treatment that formed the basis of the popular film. At the time, Richlin assigned the copyright and the right to renew the copyright to the Mirisch Corporation, a company whose interests were later succeeded by MGM. The original film spawned more than a dozen sequels and TV series.
The heirs to Richlin sued MGM, relying upon the Supreme Court decision in Stewart v. Abend, a similar case involving the film “Rear Window” that examined what happens when the author dies before the renewal of copyright: If the heirs to the author don’t bless the author’s original agreement to renew, can they withhold the assignment of rights to derivatives of the original work? The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the heirs. (“”[I]f the author dies before the commencement of the renewal period, the assignee holds nothing.”)
Richlin died in 1990. Had he copyrighted his story treatment, it would have been up for renewal in 1991. However, there’s the rub. The treatment was never copyrighted. The U.S. Copyright Office rejected the Richlin heirs’ argument that Richlin’s unpublished work deserved statutory protection because it was used to form the basis of a movie.
Thus, the 9th Circuit rejects, and has some fun in the process:
“Inspector Jacques Clouseau, famously unable to crack the simplest of murder cases, would most certainly be confounded by the case we face. While Inspector Clouseau searched for the answer to the question, “Who did it?”, we must search for the answer to the question, “Who owns it?”. In 1962, Maurice Richlin coauthored a story treatment (the “Treatment”) involving the bumbling inspector. . . .
Although the Richlin heirs have developed several theories that could supply the answer to the question, “Who owns it?”, unlike Inspector Clouseau, they have not quite stumbled upon a theory that favors them. We therefore affirm the district court’s conclusion that the Richlin heirs have no interest in the copyright to the Motion Picture.”
The studio defendants were represented by Jonathan Zavin and a team at Loeb & Loeb.
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