Ennio Morricone Scores Big Appellate Win in Copyright Termination Suit

The composer can reclaim rights for six Italian film scores.
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Ennio Morricone

Legendary composer Ennio Morricone was handed a major legal win Wednesday when an appellate court held he can reclaim rights for six Italian films he scored about four decades ago. 

In the late 1970s and early '80s, Morricone made deals with an affiliate of defendant Bixio Music Group that gave him an upfront payment and limited royalties and gave the company his rights in the works.

Morricone (The Good, the Bad & the Ugly; The Hateful Eight) in November 2016 sued to reclaim rights to the scores after sending termination notices pursuant to the 1976 Copyright Act, which allows authors to reclaim rights 35 years after publication. He lost the bid in October 2017 when a New York federal judge deemed the scores to be the Italian equivalent of works for hire, which precludes the composer's termination rights.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit on Wednesday reversed that decision, finding that the scores weren't works for hire under U.S. or Italian law. The court notes that the two countries don't define authorship the same way — and in Italy a composer is considered a joint-author of the film in which his or her work is used and is the sole author of the score itself. It's the author who can terminate rights under U.S. copyright law.

"The only exception to that right is if the work qualifies as a “work made for hire” under 17 U.S.C. § 101, and the commissioner of the work is statutorily deemed the author from the work’s conception: there is no other author, and there never was one," writes Circuit Judge Dennis Jacobs. "Italian law does not recognize a comparable allocation of authorship ab initio by statute, even if a contract between the parties grants all economic rights of exploitation to the commissioner."

The 2nd Circuit reversed the decision and remanded the matter to the district court to enter judgment in favor of Morricone. Read the full opinion below.