At Trial, Dispute Over Pope Francis' Favorite Film Draws to Peaceful Settlement

In the middle of a copyright battle pitting U.S. capitalism vs. Danish moral rights, a deal is worked out over the 1987 foreign film classic, "Babette’s Feast."
"Babette’s Feast"

Perhaps taking some inspiration from Pope Francis, who has called the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast his favorite, the parties wrestling over ownership rights to the Oscar winner have settled an international dispute.

The film concerns a political refugee from France who repays the kindness of two sisters living in an isolated village in 19th-century Denmark. It was directed by Gabriel Axel, who died this past February.

EARLIER: Oscar-Winning Danish Film at Center of Tug-of-War

A year before the film was released, Axel assigned rights to his screenplay to a production company owned by Just Bester. For that, Axel got 5 percent of the revenue generated by the film. For his directorial services, Axel was given an additional 10 percent of net income.

Bester died in 2003, and four years later, the producer's estate sold rights to Babette’s Feast for $100,000 to a Cuban-born film producer named Josi Konski.

Konski, who lives in Beverly Hills, had big plans for the film, licensing it to be reissued as part of the "Criterion Collection," but then came an objection from the Danish Film Directors trade association asserting that Axel -- not Konski -- owned the copyright. The basis of such a claim stemmed from some "moral rights" provision of Danish copyright law that potentially allowed a film director to reclaim a movie upon one film company's transfer of ownership to another.

Seeking to have his rights declared, Konski filed a lawsuit in California federal court in April 2013. The Danish Film Directors later submitted counterclaims.

The victor of this dispute was likely going to be determined by whether the judge in the case applied Danish law or United States law. In this country, there's largely no "moral rights" for authors.

"This case involves only two simple questions," said the Danish Film Directors in a trial brief submitted last month. "Was Mr. Konski’s attempt to purchase (in Denmark) rights in two Danish contracts between a Danish company and a Danish individual from the Danish Estate of a Danish citizen related to a Danish film written and directed by a Danish citizen permissible under the law? If so, has Mr. Konski complied with his obligations under those Danish contracts?"

STORY: 'Babette’s Feast' Director Gabriel Axel Dies at 95

Not so fast, said Konski's lawyers.

"Mr. Konski is a U.S. citizen acting under an assignment of copyright from the Film’s owner, which granted all right, title and interest in the Film to Mr. Konski," said the plaintiff's own trial brief. "Any putative rights of Mr. Axel were assigned to the Film’s producer and subsequently to Mr. Konski. Mr. Konski therefore had a 'justified expectation' that he was purchasing the exclusive copyright to the Film from its owner, free of any undisclosed and obscure principal of Danish law that supposedly limited or defeated Mr. Konski’s ability to continue to distribute the Film. Application of U.S. copyright law to copyrights purchased by U.S. citizens and exploited in the U.S. would vindicate the interests of the U.S. in protecting its citizens."

U.S. capitalism or Danish moral rights? On Tuesday, the trial commenced.

"The trial began with drama the creators of the film would have appreciated," noted Jay Spillane, who represents Konski. "The defendants arrived in court with an entourage of Danish witnesses and copyright law experts. We came armed with the knowledge that U.S. law was the likely victor. In court, however, we reached a compromise that satisfied both parties."

Under the settlement, Konski has agreed to pay the Axel estate pursuant to a modified royalty agreement, and in return, will resume and expand upon the re-release of the film in Blu-ray and DVD formats. The exact financial arrangement hasn't been made public. But Spillane's law firm is now boasting that it has saved Pope Francis's favorite film.

Twitter: @eriqgardner