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Richlin, et al. v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Inc., et al.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of MGM and rejected the plaintiffs’ ownership claims relating to the copyright for the motion picture The Pink Panther.

In 1962, Maurice Richlin wrote a 14-page treatment with Blake Edwards that served as the basis for the screenplay for the first Pink Panther movie. Richlin and Edwards assigned all of their rights in the treatment, as well as in any derivative works (including renewal rights), to the producer of the film in 1962. They also entered into an employment agreement with the producer that provided that Richlin and Edwards would write the screenplay for the motion picture as a work made for hire.

The treatment itself was never separately published or registered for copyright and Richlin died before the renewal rights vested. Nevertheless, Richlin’s heirs argued that the treatment achieved statutory copyright protection when the motion picture was published with notice in 1963 and, because Richlin predeceased the vesting of the statutory renewal rights in the treatment, those rights reverted to the Richlin heirs. The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument, instead holding that the treatment itself never attained statutory protection and, therefore, there was no copyright that was capable of being renewed. The court noted that the Copyright Office has held that an unpublished underlying work that is incorporated into a statutorily copyrighted motion picture does not receive a statutory copyright independent of the motion picture’s copyright.

The Ninth Circuit also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that Richlin was a co-author of the motion picture by virtue of his contributions to the treatment, noting that Richlin executed agreements establishing that the producer of the motion picture was the sole owner and author of the motion picture. The court applied the factors set forth in Aalmuhammed v. Lee, 202 F.3d 1227 (9th Cir. 2000), and held that the assignment by Richlin and Edwards to the producer of all rights in the treatment including any adaptations, scenarios, dialogue or screenplay, was evidence that Richlin and Edwards were not co-authors of the movie. “[W]hen Richlin and Edwards conveyed all present and future interests in the Treatment and derivative works to [the producer], the parties to the contract could not consistently entertain the intent that Richlin and Edwards would be co-authors of the Motion Picture.” The court concluded that there was no objective manifestation of a shared intent to be co-authors and that there was no evidence that Richlin exercised any supervisory powers over the motion picture. “While Richlin may have had control over the treatment as originally written, he had no control over how the treatment was incorporated into the motion picture.” Moreover, although Richlin and Edwards co-wrote the screenplay, the screenplay was a work made for hire pursuant to the employment agreement, making the producer the author/owner of the screenplay.