Merchant Ivory Sues Janus Films For Copyright Infringement

1992: 'Howard's End'
Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Courtesy of Everett Collection

Sony Pictures Classics has thrived as one of the most durable boutique distributors in history, releasing 348 films, garnering 93 Academy Award nominations and 23 wins.

The company opened its doors in 1992, releasing James Ivory's Howards End, which remains in theaters for more than a year and becomes the studio's first of four best picture Oscar nominees.

Merchant Ivory Productions is suing Janus Films for copyright infringement, saying the distributor of prestige titles under the Criterion label has kept marketing its films after its license to do so expired.

In a complaint filed in New York federal court on Friday, Merchant Ivory claims that Janus can no longer distribute such films as The Bostonians, A Room with a View and Remains of the Day.

Merchant Ivory says it entered into a ten-year license agreement with Janus Films in 1999. The license was purportedly extended on all but four of the company's 25 films until the end of 2010, on The Bostonians, Maurice, and Heat and Dust until the end of 2011. and on Howards End until March 13, 2014.

As the license term winded down, Merchant Ivory says it informed Janus that a new license was not forthcoming. As a result, the plaintiff says the termination dates were restated.

Merchant Ivory says it then told Janus it would consider discussing a potential future agreement, but that any such deal would be contingent upon the approval and restrictions imposed by a third party company ACKMA Recovery, with whom Merchant Ivory was engaged in an arbitration proceeding.

But Janus was marketing Merchant Ivory's films to other distributors, according to the complaint, "assuming that it would eventually reach a deal with Merchant Ivory."

In March, 2011, Janus purportedly informed Merchant Ivory that it had been approached by HanWay Films for a proposed deal for the film library. But Merchant Ivory says it explained that HanWay did not have U.S. rights because ACKMA's approval would be required.

Janus is said to have ignored "instructions and admonitions and rushed" into a 15-year distribution agreement with HanWay anyway.

Over the next year, the parties continued to fight over the grant of rights. A cease and desist letter was sent. But the films are allegedly continuing to be distributed without license.

Merchant Ivory wants relief and damages for copyright infringement. The plaintiff is represented by Stephen Nakamura in New York.

Janus hasn't responded to a request for comment.

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