02 July 2004

Quite an Intellectual Town

Los Angeles, that is; and, like the Kingston Trio, I think I've even run into him.

Which leads to an excellent illustration of the concepts of laches and the statute of limitations in copyright and entertainment law. Ironically, I was actually listening to "Wimoweh" on the stereo when I ran across a Reuters article on some controversy over the Zulu "Mbube," aka "Wimoweh," which was later adapted by Woody Guthrie in English as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and used in that form by Disney in The Lion King. According to the Reuters article, the writer's family is claiming royalties in South Africa from 1987 on.

This actually creates an interesting interaction among contract law, civil procedure, statutes of limitations, laches, and the concept of derivative rights in copyright—even before considering the international choice-of-law issues and the question of "cultural appropriation." And, dammit, nobody else is allowed to use this for an exam question until I get to! (Yeah, I can enforce that. Riiiiight.) As I understand it, the family is asserting that the original composer transferred the copyright to "Mbube" shortly after he composed it in 1939 (which, of course, begs the question of whether one can refer simultaneously to the same work as "composed" and a "cultural artifact"). However, the family also alleges that under UK copyright law in effect "at that time," the copyright should automatically have been returned to his heirs 25 years after his death in 1962, which is how we get to 1987.

Let's pretend for a moment that the return of copyright should have been automatic; as I read the law, that's highly questionable, and quite probably would not be recognized under US law since the US was not a Berne signatory at any relevant time. It seems to me that the return should have been requested under a procedure similar to that in § 203 of our current US copyright law, although I do not have access to anything other than the bare text of the UK statute in effect in either the late 1930s or the early 1960s—and it is less than even opaque. That still leaves us with determining the statute of limitations—is it three years from 1987, when the return "should" have been done (and, of course, that assumes that the laws of the Republic of South Africa had adequately incorporated the UK Patent, Design, and Copyright Act containing the plaintiffs' preferred version), or three years from the first date of release for The Lion King; and which form of The Lion King matters (film or stage play or "enhanced" home video product or…); and whether failure to act on this "right" justifies tolling of the statute of limitations; and whether, regardless of any tolling, laches bars an action; and, perhaps most importantly, whether Disney is in fact a bona fide purchaser for value of the license from a licensor that it reasonably and actually believed was authorized to grant that license.

I feel a bit like Vizzini explaining his reasoning to Wesley, because I'm just getting started. Hopefully, I won't meet the same fate. Pass me that wine, would you?