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Beatty v. Tribune Media Services, Inc.

In a declaratory action seeking a determination of the rights to the Dick Tracy character, the court grants plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that plaintiff satisfied the requirements of the parties’ agreement for retaining the rights to the Dick Tracy character.

Plaintiff Warren Beatty entered into an agreement with defendant Tribune Media Services for the rights to the Dick Tracy character. The agreement provided that the rights would revert to defendant if it provided notice to Beatty and if Beatty did not begin principal photography on a motion picture or “television series or special” using the Dick Tracy character within two years of receiving such notice. In 1990, Beatty starred in the Disney motion picture Dick Tracy. Beatty thereafter entered into an agreement with Disney to make a television show starring Nancy Kerrigan dancing with various characters including Dick Tracy. In 1995, defendant agreed that this television show would qualify as a “television special” for purposes of satisfying the agreement.

In 2005, defendant filed suit, seeking a determination that the Dick Tracy rights had reverted to it. The court dismissed the complaint because defendant had not provided notice to Beatty of its intention to re-acquire the rights. Shortly thereafter, defendant provided notice to Beatty of its intention to re-acquire the rights to the Dick Tracy character.

Within the two-year period after receiving the notice, Beatty filmed a television program to be shown on the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel in which he dressed up as Dick Tracy and answered questions posed by a film critic. The show was to be shown as part of a Dick Tracy marathon but was never broadcast.

Beatty then filed a declaratory action, seeking a determination that he still owned the rights to the Dick Tracy character based on his completion of principal photography on the television show within two years of receiving defendant’s notice of reversion. Defendant claimed that Beatty’s “thirty minute clip show” did not qualify as a “television special” because it was not intended for broadcast on a free commercial network, it was less than two hours long, and it was not a stand-alone program but rather was intended to be shown on TCM right before TCM broadcast the 1990 Dick Tracy motion picture.

The court granted summary judgment for Beatty, holding that none of the supposed requirements for the television special that defendant listed were contained in the agreement. The court also noted that the Nancy Kerrigan television show, which defendant agreed qualified as a “television special,” was less than an hour long and included only a fleeting appearance by the Dick Tracy character. “The two segments were the same length; they both were not part of a television series but stood alone as television episodes; they were both shot for television; and they both involved the use of the Dick Tracy character. Defendant may be frustrated that Plaintiff has not used his rights to Dick Tracy for more profitable ends. The court, however, cannot ‘create for the parties a contract they did not make,’ and the court ‘cannot insert language that one party now wishes were there.’”

The court also rejected defendant’s assertion that Beatty acted in bad faith by making the television show solely to retain his rights in the character and did not make the show to create value in the Dick Tracy character. The court stated that “[t]hat may very well be true; no more was required. . . . It is not an act of bad faith for a party to act in conformity with rights which have been provided to him under the terms of the Agreement.”