Paramount Wins 'La Dolce Vita' Lawsuit

44 BIZ La Dolce Vita H
Everett Collection

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg star in the comedy-drama, which at one point fell into the public domain.

After a hard-fought legal battle that examined decades worth of international deal-making, from the golden age of Italian cinema to more recently, a New York judge has decided that Paramount Pictures owns the copyright to Federico Fellini's classic film, La Dolce Vita.

Paramount, which was represented by David Halberstadter, was battling a company called International Media Films, which also asserted rights and authorized special DVDs upon the film's 50th anniversary in 2011. In November 2011, Paramount sued and looked to a judge for a declaration over its ownership.

Each side presented a competing chain-of-title. In a ruling on Wednesday, Paramount's is declared the winner by a California federal court.

Read the full ruling.

In the case, both sides agreed that producer Riana Film S.P.A. originally held title to the 1960 film. Both agreed that rights to La Dolce Vita were then transferred to Cinemat S.A.

But then, things got complicated with IMF saying that Cinemat sold those rights to a company called Hor A.G., which then passed those rights along to Oriental Films, which transferred rights to Cinestampa, which then paved the way to IMF. Paramount's competing position is that Cinemat sold it to a company called Astor, which ran into financial trouble and eventually sold rights to a company controlled by Paramount.

U.S. District Judge James Otero doesn't give much credit to the way that IMF introduced evidence supporting its own chain-of-title theory. He says that the defendant "has not submitted admissible evidence authenticating the documents" and failed to disclose to Paramount witnesses who declared the validity of the Cinemat-Hor Transfer.

But even if there were no questions about the authenticity of deals that led to IMF's purported control, the judge adds that it wouldn't lend doubt to Paramount's competing theories. "If Cinemat had already transferred the same rights to Astor Pictures in 1962, then the Cinemat-Hor Transfer eighteen years later is a nullity and therefore irrelevant to Plaintiffs' Motion."

Judge Otero was also asked by IMF to question the authenticity of Paramount's theory on chain-of-title and finds that language of the agreement between Cinemat and Astor doesn't support IMF's argument that it is invalid or a sham.

"Defendant has submitted evidentiary objections to nearly all of Plaintiffs' evidence, including the documents showing Plaintiffs' chain of title to the Film rights," writes the judge. "The Court has thoroughly examined these objections and found them to be without merit."

Having decided that summary judgment is appropriate to declare that IMF doesn't own La Dolce Vita and Paramount does, the judge next turns to the issue of whether IMF infringed Paramount's copyright.

Here, Paramount scores a success, although not as large as it wanted.

The studio fails in convincing the judge that IMF committed direct copyright infringement because "all the evidence shows is that Defendant authorized others to do so through licensing agreements."

But Paramount does score a summary judgment win on the issue of whether IMF committed contributory copyright infringement.

Here's what the judge writes: "It is undisputed that KLF and E1, Defendant's licensees, engaged in direct copyright infringement by distributing the Film. Additionally, Plaintiff has submitted undisputed evidence that Defendant has earned royalties from KLF’s distribution of the Film and thereby had knowledge of this infringing activity. Finally, it is undisputed that the licensing agreements induced or caused KLF and E1 to engage in this infringement."

The ruling moves the dispute to a damages assessment, but as far as Paramount is concerned, its biggest win is confirming that it owns an important piece of film history.

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