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U.S. Court Rejects Claim to James Bond

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kevin McClory might well have been the mastermind behind the debonair Bond, James Bond, but the clock on McClory’s claim to the Agent 007 film franchise expired long ago, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

“So like our hero James Bond, exhausted after a long adventure, we reach the end of our story,” Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote for a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, ending a legal drama that has stretched on almost as long as the Cold War.

The panel ruled that McClory, of Ireland, waited too long and failed to establish that Danjaq, the company that has produced 19 James Bond movies, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. infringed his rights under U.S. copyright law.

“Every so often, the law shakes off its cobwebs to produce a story far too improbable even for the silver screen--too fabulous even for the world of Agent 007,” McKeown wrote in the introduction to Monday’s opinion. “This is one of those occasions, for the case before us has it all. A hero seeking to redeem his stolen fortune. The villainous organization that stands in his way. Mystery. International Intrigue. . . . The parties dispute, however, the source from which Agent 007 sprang.”

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The saga started in the late 1950s when McClory began collaborating on a screenplay with screenwriter Jack Whittingham and Ian Fleming, the author of several books featuring agent James Bond. McClory contends that he was the one who transformed the Bond character from the violent alcoholic in Fleming’s books to the witty and rakish British agent known for his martinis (shaken, not stirred) and narrow escapes.

The three men produced the “Thunderball” screenplay, which almost immediately became the subject of a legal tussle in Britain between McClory and Fleming. “Thunderball” would have been the first James Bond movie except for the litigation. Instead, “Dr. No” was released first, in 1962, and “Thunderball” followed three years later.

Fleming eventually settled with McClory, conceding that he used copyrighted material from the “Thunderball” screenplay, according to court papers. Later, McClory teamed up with Warner Bros., which released “Never Say Never Again,” with Sean Connery as Bond, in 1983.

The latest lawsuit--the subject of the appeals court ruling--was filed four years ago by Danjaq and MGM against Sony Corp. and its studio, Columbia Pictures, which had bought the rights from McClory and planned to produce its own series of James Bond films. The clash of the film studios ended when Sony two years ago gave up its claim in accepting a $10-million settlement from MGM.

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That left McClory and his affiliate, Spectre Associates, named for the organization Bond battled in early movies, to carry on the fight.

Marc Becker, an attorney representing MGM and Danjaq, said McKeown’s ruling should close the final chapter. The opinion pointed out McClory had more than 35 years to bring his claim and could not challenge subsequent James Bond pictures. MGM plans to release a Bond thriller next year.

The companies are not interested in courtroom sequels.

“We certainly hope that this will end it all,” Becker said. “It should. But if you look at the history and the relationships, I wouldn’t call it a battle, but it’s a series of litigation that has been on and off for 40 years. And Mr. McClory is someone who knows how to defend his rights.”

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Indeed.

McClory “has been trying for 40 years to exercise his rights,” said attorney Paul J. Cohen, who represents Spectre Associates. “All he wants to do is make a movie--that’s all he’s ever wanted to do.”


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