Writers, actors and musicians who sold the rights to their work in motion pictures of the 1950s and 1960s may be able to cash in now that many of these films are being distributed on videotape, according to a decision handed down Wednesday by a federal appeals court.
The ruling, in a case against Paramount Pictures Corp., held that a license giving the movie studio the right to exhibit the film on television does not necessarily include the right to sell the film on videotape.
That distinction drawn by the court opens the door for the renegotiation of tens of thousands of licenses and contracts, according to attorneys who specialize in entertainment law.
And it means that movie producers could have to pay out millions of dollars to these writers and performers to get many of these older films released, they said.
'A Clear Message'
"This sends a clear message to the studios that they can't use these movies without renegotiating for the use" of songs, screen plays and performances that may be affected, said Evan S. Cohen, the attorney who successfully argued the case.
"This will cause music publishers to re-examine their contracts from the 1950s and beyond to see if they granted rights to television only," Cohen said.
"There are probably a lot of contracts around just gathering dust," said David Carson, an entertainment law specialist. "Many people may want to dust them off now," he said.
In the case before the court, Paramount Pictures Corp. was granted rights from music publisher Bizarre Music Co. to use the song "Merry-Go-Round," by musician Larry (Wildman) Fisher in the film "Medium Cool." The license specifically conveyed the right to use the song in television and theater exhibition of the film, which depicts a journalist covering the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention.
Paramount contended that "videocassette display is the equivalent of 'exhibition . . . by means of television,"' wrote Judge Proctor Hug Jr. in the unanimous decision by a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
"We cannot agree," Hug wrote. "Though videocassettes may be displayed by using a television monitor, it does not follow that, for copyright purposes, videocassettes constitute 'exhibition by television.' "
Many, if not most contracts and licenses in the field, now have language that protects exhibition of films "by any present or future methods or means" or "by any other means now known or unknown," or "by any means or methods now or hereafter known."
In cases affecting those standard contracts, appeals courts have sided with the movie companies, agreeing that the language was sufficiently broad to include videotape production.
Contracts Were Limited
But well into the 1970s, many contracts simply included television and theaters.
Producers of the film "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," for instance, had to pull several Jackson Browne songs from the 1982 film when it went into videotape production because the studio had not included videocassettes in the original contract and could not successfully renegotiate rights with the song writer/performer, according to Browne's attorney, Peter Paterno.
"I think a substantial number of films will have these problems," Paterno said.
Most of the movies affected will be from the 1950s and 1960s--after the advent of television, but before videocassettes became widely known and contracts were written to include those rights, attorneys said.
"The impact on new technologies, and technologies not yet invented, is impressive," said one attorney specializing in entertainment law about Wednesday's ruling.
Like Earlier Battles
Similar legal battles have erupted over the years. It happened when movies supplanted plays, when "talkies" took over for silent movies and when television became commercially available in the late 1940s.
But just how much money is actually at stake in this latest battle is in question. Certainly in total, the ruling could cost movie companies millions of dollars, observers said. But in individual cases, the fees for new licenses may not be great.
Paramount sold 2,725 video versions of the film "Medium Cool," with gross revenues of $69,024, according to the court records. Cohen said that at best his client will get only $10,000 to $20,000 in damages.
Paramount officials declined to comment on Wednesday's ruling and their attorneys could not be reached.