Showing posts with label Warner Brothers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Warner Brothers. Show all posts

Saturday, September 21, 2013

When Does Copyright Law Cease Protecting a Fictional Character? (Part II)

A previous post discussed litigation related to the current status of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's copyright claims to the fictional characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, given that several works had passed into the public domain as a matter of US copyright law.

Below is a further discussion about the power of US copyright law to protect fictional characters that have lapsed into the public domain, but which have been developed through subsequent film adaptations and through the creation of "derivative works."

These legal issues are best illustrated by the murky copyright status of the iconic characters in the Wizard of Oz.

In May 1900, author L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a fantasy children's novel that included illustrations by W.W. Denslow.  The book includes the familiar story describing how Dorothy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion traveled down the yellow brick road together to see the Wizard so Dorothy could return home. Notably, in the original 1900 text, Dorothy's slippers are silver.

Baum's seminal book was famously adapted to movie screens in the now iconic 1939 masterpiece film starring Judy Garland. This film made revolutionary use of Technicolor, which inspired a change to the color of Dorothy's slippers to ruby red.  Indeed, Dorothy's red slippers would later become enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution, as a testament to the importance that this particular prop played in American culture.

Although the children's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz lost its US copyright protection in 1956, only the original novel by Baum and illustrations by Denslow have entered the public domain.

However, all the later-created derivative works based on the novel are still eligible for independent copyright protection.

Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines a "derivative work" as "[a] work based upon one or more preexisting works" or "[a] work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications, which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship."  Therefore, the 1939 film in which Dorothy wore ruby red slippers is a derivative work that is still protected by US copyright, valuable rights currently held by Warner Brothers.

Slight differences between the public domain novel and the still-copyrighted movie are not an academic issue to those seeking to make any adaptation of the Wizard of Oz plotline without a license from Warner Brothers.  And that includes Disney.

Indeed, just last week, Disney aired a brand new adaptation of the original Wizard of Oz called the Wizard of Dizz.  In this version, Mickey Mouse and the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse troupe are recast as the characters from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with Minnie Mouse as Dorothy, and Professor Von Drake as the Wizard.

While the Disney adaptation is potentially protected free speech as a form of parody, a subtle but important detail is the fact that the ruby red slippers worn by Minnie Mouse are replaced by green shoes.

Was this detail an act of literary license on Disney's part, or part of a clever legal strategy to avoid a claim of copyright infringement? 

In their most recent squabbles over this issue, Warner Brothers took the legal position that the characters from the film had so altered public perception, that virtually ANY unauthorized use of the characters would violate the film studio's copyright.

Subsequently, additional unauthorized renditions including Oz the Great and Powerful starring James Franco, stirred up even more controversy, as Disney riled Warner Brothers by filing for trademarks on that name.

In conclusion, when fictional characters are first described in a text that falls into the public domain, the status of the original copyright does not necessarily make these characters free for the public to use without license.

Further, in Part III, we will discuss how trademarks and trade dress can theoretically create a perpetual "brand" surrounding a character that otherwise would be in the public domain as a matter of copyright law.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Warner Brothers Studio Faces Legal and Public Relations Nightmare

Amidst the current news reports that The Dark Knight Rises’ actor Christian Bale made a surprise visit to the survivors of the Aurora, Colorado theater massacre, was a curious comment:

“Mr. Bale is there as himself, not representing Warner Brothers,” reportedly said an assistant to Susan Fleishman, the executive vice president for corporate communications at the movie studio.

But why would the studio seemingly want to distance itself from Mr. Bale’s charitable and apparently welcome visit?  

To be sure, the movie studio has already made a substantial donation to the victims, and is obviously not callous or indifferent to the suffering caused by the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
Carey Rottman with Christian Bale / Facebook
Rather, the answer may have more to do with the unfortunate position that Warner Brothers now faces from both a legal and public relations perspective.

First, the Warner Brothers’ “Dark Knight” franchise is regrettably forever linked as part of the Colorado shooter’s motives, as the suspect appeared in a Colorado courtroom earlier this week with hair dyed red and orange, reportedly claiming to police that he was the Joker character played by the late Heath Ledger.

Warner Brothers’ desire to at least try and keep some distance between itself and the tragedy to avoid civil liability is not based on paranoia.

Indeed, one of the shooting victims has already filed a lawsuit against the studio, alleging that the violence depicted in the Dark Knight films is a legally contributing factor to the shootings. (That same suit has also in turn blamed the lack of security at the movie theater, and the suspect’s doctor for failing to treat him properly).

Plaintiffs’ lawyers may want to take advantage of a reasonable cooling off period before firing off such lawsuits.  The criminal investigation has barely just begun, and will undoubtedly shed much more light on the suspect’s state of mind, motives and conduct in weeks and months to come.

It is worth noting that civil lawsuits blaming content creators for the criminal acts of deranged minds have a tendency to fail.  And, in fact, Colorado has precedent nearly on point:  Nintendo of America, Activision and Sony Computer Entertainment were named as defendants in a civil lawsuit filed by the families of the 13 victims killed in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

That lawsuit was aimed at 25 entertainment companies in total and sought $5 billion in damages.  Ultimately, the case was dismissed by a Colorado federal court in March 2002, with the Court finding that the media and videogame companies could not have reasonably foreseen that their products would cause the horrific events that occurred in the Columbine massacre or other acts of violence.

"Setting aside any personal distaste, as I must, it is manifest that there is social utility in expressive and imaginative forms of entertainment, even if they contain violence," District Court Judge Babcock wrote in his opinion.