Ennio Morricone Sues to Reclaim Rights to Film Scores

Ennio Morricone - GETTY - H 2016
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Friday the 13th, This Is Spinal Tap and now, film scores created by the legendary Italian film composer Ennio Morricone. It may be time to realize that an event that many lawyers foretold — authors terminating copyright grants — is at hand in the film industry.

On Monday, Morricone's company filed suit in New York federal court with the aim of recapturing the copyrights to three of his film scores. According to a complaint against Bixio Music Group, Morricone has sent termination notices on film scores for Cosi Come Sei (Stay As You Are), Il Giocattolo (A Dangerous Toy) and Un Sacco Bello (Fun Is Beautiful).

The 1976 Copyright Act allows authors or their heirs to cancel a grant 35 years after initial publication. Those who do the math will figure out why works created in the late 1970s and early 1980s are suddenly subject to recapture by their creators. In the past couple months, lawsuits involving termination have been filed with regard to Friday the 13th and This Is Spinal Tap, making the topic quite hot.

The complaint (read here in full) states Morricone made written agreements from 1978 to 1980 with Edizioni Musicali to compose the scores for these three films. Subsequently, Edizioni Musicali assigned the United States copyrights to Bixio, which registered a claim with ASCAP to collect royalties from the public performance of the films.

The termination notices were served in 2012, and according to the lawsuit, recorded by the U.S. Copyright Office the following year. In the past couple of years, Morricone assigned rights to his own company.

"Morricone Music upon receipt of the assignments from the Composer attempted to register its claims to all royalties collected from the public performance of the film scores Cosi Come Se, Il Giocattolo and Un Sacco Bello in the United States with ASCAP but Bixio refused to relinquish the Bixio Claim based upon its allegation that the film scores were created as works made for hire and not subject to the termination under 17 U.S.C. 2013," states the lawsuit.

Copyright law doesn't allow termination when an employer is deemed to be the statutory author. A work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment or a work specifically assigned to a publisher or a studio as a "work made for hire" falls into this category, and disputes over ownership can get complicated. This one might be no exception.

"Morricone Music disputes the Bixio Claim, denies that the film scores were created as works made for hire because the Composer during his creation of the film scores was at all times acting as an independent contractor who was not in the employ of Edizioni Musicali, and the Composer did not agree in writing that any of the film scores would constitute a work made for hire," adds the complaint.

Bixio wasn't immediately available for comment.

The lawsuit could be a sign of more termination attempts to come from film composers, although one shouldn't overestimate the implications either. Derivative works like motion pictures prepared under authority of a copyright grant before its termination may continue to be utilized under the terms of the grant after its termination. In other words, even if Morricone recaptures his film scores, he probably won't be able to enjoin film producers and a distributor like Netflix from using his scores. He would, though, be able to collect royalties as well as license his old scores to others.