Friday, March 26, 2010

Are Mardi Gras Costumes Copyrightable?

U.S. copyright law protects a lot of content - everything from books and art to motion pictures, TV shows, sculpture and choreography - and lots in between. But certain things are not copyrightable: ideas, concepts, short titles and useful articles like clothing designs. But here is a recent article that explores the boundaries of the law regarding clothing designs. It addresses the question of whether those grandiose and fabulous Mardi Gras costumes way down in New Orleans are suitable (no pun intended) for copyright protection. We do not know if this issue will be tested in court or how a judge might rule if presented with the issue. But we do believe that these kinds of Mardi Gras costumes are way more than merely functional clothing designs and therefore they should be copyrightable. If that happens, however, is it just going to clog up the courts with more lawsuits when one Mardi Gras costumer designer decides that another costume design is too close to his or hers and constitutes copyright infringement? We will see.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hollywood In Sight: "The Runaways" Film

We are pleased to report that the new film entitled "The Runaways" starring Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, and Michael Shannon opened nationally yesterday after having its Los Angeles red-carpet premiere Thursday March 11, 2010. Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning star as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, two of the founding members of the first all-female rock and roll band "The Runaways". Michael Shannon - nominated for an Academy Award for his role in "Revolutionary Road" - co-stars as our friend and client, the legendary music impresario Kim Fowley.

So far the word on the street is that Michael Shannon almost steals the film from Stewart and Fanning - the stars of the latest "Twilight" movie. According to the L.A. Times, Shannon plays Kim with "a delicious twisted perverseness" and "infuses manic life and libido into the crazy, controlling genius in caftans". We had the pleasure of representing Kim in the negotiations with the film's producers several years ago for the rights to his story. Since we knew that the movie would be based on Cherie Currie's acidic tell-all biography and that every great story needs a villain, we anticipated that Kim's character would be portrayed as a combination of a psycho-Svengali and Fagin. Thus for us the toughest task in the negotiations with the producers of the film was to ensure contractually that the producers, writer and director did not take too much liberty with the characterization of Kim. The producers initially resisted our efforts to place limits on their right to shape the character, but this was deal-breaker for Kim and eventually we were able to strike a compromise that was acceptable to all parties. That's not to say that Michael Shannon's portrayal of Kim doesn't show him to be a tough taskmaster that wrangled a bunch of teenagers to help them achieve their dream at a time when almost anything was ok in the name of achieving success. But The Runaways rocked when women weren't supposed to do that and were a genuine sensation in that gap between the end of the 60s and the coming of the Ramones, Sex Pistols, etc. Thus Kim's characterization in the film may not be flattering by modern standards. But, that is - as they say - entertainment. More to follow when the film opens in San Diego...

For a link to a photo of Kim Fowley, Michael Shannon, and the film's director Floria Sigismondi
click here.
For a movie clip where Kim introduces Cherie Curie to Joan Jett click here.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Copyrights: When Does Flattery Become Infringement?

A recent article about an art world dispute raises an interesting problem that has perplexed lawyers, judges, artists, and photographers for years: how much legal protection is to be given to a photograph? The dispute the article describes pushes the boundaries of what has been and continues to be one of the most challenging and controversial issues in copyright law: when does someone go beyond permissible "copying" of an unprotectible idea and cross over into illegal copying of the "expression" of that idea? Lawyers, law students and judges have grappled with this "idea-expression dichotomy" for decades - perhaps longer. The shorthand way I have often tried to explain the idea-expression dichotomy is this: if Shakespeare had been alive at the time the play and subsequent film "West Side Story" were produced, he wouldn't have had a legal claim to stand on. Why? Because although "West Side Story" copied the idea of "Romeo and Juliet", the expressed of that idea in "West Side Story" was new and different.

In this recent case, photographer David Burdeny is accused of duplicating the look and feel of several photographs by Sze Tsung Leong and copying mulitple text descriptions of the photos. [Note: to the best of our knowledge, no law suit has been filed yet; the case currently resides in the "exchange of angry letters" mode].

In terms of photography, typically no one photographer can claim the exclusive right to the idea of taking a documentary style photo of a building or landscape, for example, the Ponto Vecchio in Florence or a pyramid in Eqypt. [To the contrary, of course, if Leong had combined a photo of the pyramid with a waterscape photo such that the pyramid appeared in the water, Burdeny would have a dead-bang loser case if he copied that expression]. Thus if Burdeny was alleged to have "copied" only one of Leong's photographs, I believe Burdeny would have a much cleaner defense. But when you take into account the combination of the number of photographs Burdeny is alleged to have copied plus the written descriptions of the photos, the case for Leong and against Burdeny gets more compelling - at the very least to the extent that a jury might be swayed to believe that Burdeny crossed the line. Frankly, the argument for infringement by Burdeny is much stronger with respect to the descriptions of the photos. Burdeny's descriptions may not be "identical" to Leong's, but they are "substantially similar" - and that's the standard for copyright infringement under U.S. law.

More to follow as the case develops.......

Questions? or