Penthouse battles over rights to 'Caligula' and Omni magazine

More than 30 years after it first shocked audiences with its graphic sex scenes and depictions of gruesome violence, “Caligula” is still causing trouble, only this time in court.

Penthouse, which produced the infamous Roman epic, has filed a new complaint in a Los Angeles federal court over the rights to the movie. The adult entertainment company is also fighting over the rights to Omni, the science magazine created by Penthouse’s late founder, Bob Guccione.

At the center of the suit is Jerrick Media, a New Jersey company that Penthouse is accusing of infringing on its copyrights and trademarks for both “Caligula” and Omni. The complaint even names actor Jared Leto, claiming that his production company’s agreement with Jerrick Media to develop new Omni-themed content violates Penthouse’s rights.

“I'm fiercely protective of my IP [intellectual property],” Kelly Holland, chief executive of Penthouse Global Media, said in an interview. “We're bringing down our full force on this.”

Holland acquired the company last year from Friend Finder Networks and has been working to reassemble Guccione’s media empire, which fell on hard financial times in the years leading up to his death in 2010.

Penthouse, now based in Chatsworth, is accusing Jerrick Media of making a copy of “Caligula” and offering it for digital sale and rental on Vimeo. The suit states that Penthouse owns all rights to the movie, including the original 1980 theatrical release version and a subsequent “Imperial Edition” that was released on DVD in 2007.

The movie — starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren and Peter O’Toole — was a passion project of Guccione, who sought to merge the high production values of mainstream cinema with adult content.

Penthouse, through its previous parent company General Media, has been fighting with the owner of Jerrick Media over “Caligula” since 2013 over the online use of the movie’s trademarks, according to the complaint.

Jerrick Media didn’t reply to a request for comment. The company said in a statement to Xbiz, the adult entertainment industry news site, that the suit is without merit.

The lawsuit claims that Jerrick Media Chief Executive Jeremy Frommer purchased memorabilia from the Guccione estate through auction and private sale, and subsequently launched an online reboot of Omni magazine. The site offers articles dealing with science, space and the paranormal, as well as science fiction stories.

“It is as if I went to a garage sale and bought a DC Comic for a dime and thought I can make ‘Wonder Woman,’” said Holland. “He thinks he owns the IP for these things.”

She said Penthouse is planning its own relaunch of Omni in print later this year. The original magazine, which debuted in 1978, was created by Guccione and his longtime partner Kathy Keeton, whom he married a decade later.

In June, Jerrick Media announced a production deal with Leto’s company, Paradox, to produce Omni-related content. A report in the New York Post stated that Leto is partnering with Jerrick Media President Rick Schwartz on a “futuristic TV anthology,” tied with Omni.

The defendant’s activities show an “ongoing and blatant disregard for the intellectual property rights of Penthouse and their manifest intent to capitalize on those rights for their own gain,” said the suit.

Penthouse is seeking unspecified damages as well as an injunction against the defendants prohibiting their use of the “Caligula” and Omni copyrights and trademarks.

The rivalry between the two sides also extends to competing TV projects based on the life of Guccione. Jerrick Media has announced its intent to create a series based on the life of the porn publisher. But Penthouse has said it is developing its own series about its founder that would explore his personal life and the making of “Caligula.”

david.ng@latimes.com

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
75°