11 July 2008

Lassie Rights Come Home!

It appears that Timmy has fallen down the well again. But Lassie's copyrights and related literary rights have come home... sort of.

The Ninth Circuit issued a ruling today in Classic Media, Inc. v. Mewborn, No. 06–55385 (9th Cir. 11 Jul 2008) that bears some careful consideration by literary heir. The question asked and answered seems vastly simpler than it is: Can a later transfer of bundle-of-rights x cut off the revocation of rights privilege (misleadingly called a "termination of rights" privilege in the Copyright Act, at 17 U.S.C. § 304(c) for works originating under the 1909 Act and at 17 U.S.C. § 203 for works originating under the 1976 Act) for that same bundle x, when the statutory language providing the recovation of rights privilege explicitly says that no contract that purports to cut off that privilege is enforceable?

The Ninth Circuit's answer was, in a nutshell, "Well, duuuuuuuh. The statute says no in plain language; the later transfer is just an unenforceable contract provision as far as cutting off the revocation privilege is concerned." The key consideration, though — largely glossed over in the opinion — is the complexity of determining who has that privilege. The Copyright Act is quite specific... but leaves a fair number of unconsidered cases, and neglects to explicitly state the time of vesting or whether the privilege can be devised in any other manner.

I do not see this as a cert-worthy case. The Ninth Circuit reached the obvious, and correct, conclusion, and there is no circuit split (particularly in light of Simon). The disputes on the revocation privilege all revolve around who may claim it, not when it may be claimed.

In substance, what this opinion really means is that everyone is going to have to go back to the bargaining table and hammer out new licensing agreements with a slightly different understanding of who has control, and for how long. It does not mean that the Lassie films will somehow fall into the public domain at midnight tonight, or anything like that.