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Paramount Pictures is going to court to prove that it owns the copyright to Federico Fellini’s classic film, La Dolce Vita. Since the film’s release in 1960, ownership on the film has changed hands several times, leading to a complicated chain-of-title dispute that Paramount wishes to put to rest once and for all.
On Thursday, Paramount filed a complaint in California federal court against International Media Films, which also claims to be the valid copyright owner of the Fellini classic.
Last year, La Dolce Vita celebrated its 50th anniversary, and both companies took advantage with theatrical re-releases and special edition DVDs and Blu-Rays. Paramount received cease-and-desist letters, leading the studio yesterday to file an intriguing case that figures to stretch across oceans and time.
Although this lawsuit is new, it’s not the first time that the copyright to La Dolce Vita has been in question.
In 2007, International Media Films sued Lucas Entertainment, which had released a porn version entitled Michael Lucas’ La Dolce Vita.
Before that dispute got to the challenging issue of whether there was substantial similarity in orgy scenes, the question arose whether International Media really held a valid chain of title. The film’s ownership has been polygamous over the years, to say the least, and so, many copyright experts and document examiners were trotted out by the parties to figure out the 50-year history of the film’s protectors.
International Media raised a theory of transfer that goes something like this: the original producers of the film assigned the rights in 1962 to Cinemat, S.A., which transferred rights in 1980 to Hor A.G., which transferred rights the following year to Oriental Films, which transferred rights in 1998 to Cinestampa, which then transferred rights in 2001 to International Media. A year later, International Media filed a registration with the US Copyright Office on a restoration copy of the Fellini film.
Lucas Entertainment disputed the authenticity of some of those agreements and offered an alternative story line that goes something like this: The original producers of the film assigned distribution rights in the United States in 1961 to Astor Pictures, which transferred rights in 1966 to Ardisco Financial Corp., which later sold rights to Republic Entertainment, which was the predecessor-in-interest to Melange Pictures, which filed a restoration copyright in 1996. For more than a decade, Paramount has controlled Melange’s film library.
In other words, a true head-scratcher, and it’s not surprising that in March 2010, when considering this case, New York federal judge John Koeltl put his hands up in near resignation, saying that International Media had failed in its burden to show a valid chain of title.
Judge Koelt wouldn’t say who owned the film. Does anybody? “In fact, it is possible for the Fellini film to be in the public domain,” he wrote in an opinion.
Despite the ruling, Paramount says that International Media continues to make claims on the film and has sent cease-and-desist letters, not only to Paramount but also to the Paramount’s theatrical partners who have been licensed to exhibit the film.
Paramount still believes it has valid custody over the film and is now seeking a declaration of its ownership title. Represented by David Halberstadter at Katten Muchin Rosenman, Paramount is also seeking damages for International Media’s alleged copyright infringement.
To complicate matters even further, it’s possible that a coming U.S. Supreme Court ruling could make this entire dispute moot.
On October 5, the high court heard arguments in Golan v. Holder, which examines whether millions of 20th Century masterpieces were wrongfully taken out of the public domain when the U.S. government led an international treaty that harmonized many intellectual property laws around the globe. By signing these treaties, foreign authors were given the opportunity to restore copyright on many works. The plaintiff is alleging that all of these works taken out of the public domain were a violation of the free speech rights of the American public.
It’s possible that that the Supreme Court could restore many copyrighted works to the public domain, including, yes, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
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