'Buckaroo Banzai' Creators Claim MGM Infringed Copyright by Shopping TV Series

Earl Mac Rauch and Walter Richter say in court papers that the early 1980s deal with MGM was a limited one.
'The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension' (1984)

In the second chapter in the legal fight over Buckaroo Banzai rights, Earl Mac Rauch, who wrote the 1984 cult film about a neurosurgeon/rock star who saves Earth from malevolent aliens, and Walter Richter, who directed the picture, bring counterclaims against MGM over its plans to make a television version.

According to original complaint filed by MGM in November, Rauch and Richter have gotten in the way of reprising Buckaroo's adventures for Amazon Studios with Kevin Smith at the helm. After The Hollywood Reporter broke news about the litigation, Smith bowed out. Nevertheless, there's still plenty to resolve, with both sides seeking declaratory relief on ownership and the creators also now adding a counterclaim for copyright infringement.

Rauch says that in 1973, he originally pitched Richter on the idea for a series of interlocking, episodic adventures. Originally, the main character was named "Buckaroo Bandy," initially conceived as a country-western singer and jet-car driver.

In the years that followed, Rauch began writing plots for various episodes, including Buckaroo's race to defeat Mister Cigars, one involving a King Kong-like robot owned by a vicious cartel and another that included the discovery that Adolf Hitler really didn't die in a Berlin bunker but had escaped disguised as a woman and was hiding out in a forbidding Ecuadorian jungle populated by gigantic, hairy humans.

By 1981, Richter says he had formed an independent production company that had over 200 pages of the Buckaroo Banzai saga. It was being likened to Indiana Jones.

Richter's team pitched MGM.

The creators say that MGM was only interested in acquiring a single episode and specifically passed on acquiring Rauch's larger intellectual property rights to the Buckaroo canon.

"All that [MGM's] predecessors acquired was memorialized in an April 9, 1981, agreement, which specifically provides for Counter-Defendants’ predecessor in interest to 'borrow' Rauch as a writer-for-hire from his personal holding company, Johnny B. Good Inc., to write a screenplay and two revisions based on a single episode he had previously referenced in the Agreement...," states the counterclaim (see here).

Naturally, MGM has its own view.

In its own complaint, the studio emphasized the services Rauch and Richter provided were on a "work-made-for-hire" basis with MGM's predecessor maintaining creative control over the Buckaroo Banzai project and contributing copyrightable elements. Alternatively, MGM claims that it was assigned "all exclusive rights under copyright to the screenplay and motion picture, and the characters, plots, themes, dialogue, mood, settings, pace, sequence of events, and other protected elements therein."

After the release of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, with an ending in the form of a message to audiences, "Watch for the next adventure of Buckaroo Banzai — Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League," certain rights (although obviously disputed in scope) passed to different companies including United Artists, Credit Lyonnais Bank-Netherlands, Polygram Filmed Entertainment, Seagrams Universal and back to MGM. And at one point, Warner Bros. was interested in doing something with Buckaroo Banzai. A clouded chain of title may have dissuaded them.

Both sides seem to wish to reboot the property, but they aren't working together. 

With MGM attempting a television series, Rauch and Richter are crying foul.

"In its creation, production, marketing, and advertising of the television series described herein, Counter-Defendants have copied the protectable elements of Counter-Claimants’ intellectual property rights in and to the world of Buckaroo Banzai and its characters, themes, other plots, other stories, dialogue, mood, settings, pace, sequence of events and other protected elements, including but not limited the Buckaroo Banzai Copyrights," writes the creators' attorney Kenneth Keller.

They are demanding a permanent injunction as well as available monetary damages.