Mary Pickford Website at Center of Legal Battle Over Legacy

A documentary filmmaker won't cede control because he says the Foundation is walking away from the silent film legend's charitable interests.
The 2012 biography: "Mary Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood."

The legacy of Oscar-winning actress Mary Pickford, one of the first female stars of early Hollywood, has become the subject of a cybersquatting lawsuit.

The Mary Pickford Foundation is suing Timeline Films and its founder Hugh Neely for allegedly holding onto as "ransom" instead of handing over the website.

Neely, a documentary filmmaker who specializes in movies about Old Hollywood including a 1997 Showtime doc about Pickford, has in turn responded by saying that the Foundation plans to stop its charitable endeavors and is attempting to "steal" the website.

Pickford was once the most popular actress in the world, starring in films including Coquette (for which she won an Oscar), The Poor Little Rich Girl, and Daddy-Long-Legs. In 1919, along with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks, she co-founded United Artists. She passed away in 1979 at the age of 87.

STORY: Lily Rabe to Play Silent Film Star Mary Pickford on Screen

Since then, the Mary Pickford Foundation has been attempting to cultivate awareness of the actress' career through the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education as well as engaging itself in many charitable endeavors, such as the Motion Picture and Television Fund Home and Hospital, the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging and an endowment to the USC Film School.

In 1999, shortly after Neely directed Mary Pickford: A Life on Film, which was narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, the Foundation authorized Timeline Films to create a website for Pickford. He did, registering it to Timeline, and the website has been under Neely's control ever since.

Now, in a lawsuit filed in California federal court, the Foundation is suing for cybersquatting, breach of contract, conversion, and breach of fiduciary duty. According to the complaint, the Foundation owns the actress' trademarks and publicity rights, and alleges that Neely has breached an oral agreement by refusing to cede ownership and control of the site. Neely is reported in the lawsuit to have a "bad faith intent to profit by withholding" the domain.

Today on, there is a plea for people to sign a petition to "restore funding for the Mary Pickford Institute."

Neely explains that charitable efforts are being defunded and that the Foundation is changing its focus.

"There is no reason why they should control the website," he says. "They have changed direction, They are trying to steal it. Nothing entitles them to it, and my impression is they are maliciously trying to cause trouble."

The Foundation appears to control the alternative

Henry Stotsenberg, the president of the Foundation, says that the Institute is being defunded but it is only changing direction insofar as the Foundation wishes to more directly in control of charitable endeavors to get "bigger bang for the buck." He says that it's "simply not true" that the Foundation has any plans to stop giving and says that Neely is merely unhappy that the funds won't be going through the Institute anymore.

The lawsuit from the Foundation against Neely seeks injunctive relief including a transfer of domain plus compensatory and punitive monetary damages.

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