The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently affirmed a decision against the heirs of the man who created the Pink Panther and granted copyright ownership to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. Richlin et al. v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, et al., Case No. 06-55307 (9th Cir., June 19, 2008) (Wardlaw, J.).

In 1962, Maurice Richlin and Blake Edwards co-authored the treatment, The Pink Panther, a comedy story featuring the bumbling French police inspector Jacques Clouseau. Richlin and Edwards were subsequently contracted by the Mirisch Corporation on a “work for hire” basis to write the screenplay for the film, The Pink Panther, based on the treatment. Richlin and Edwards also assigned all of their rights in the treatment to Mirisch. The film, The Pink Panther, was released in 1963 and became a smash hit. The Pink Panther film franchise includes nine sequels and numerous other derivative works. Richlin and Edwards received screen credit in the Pink Panther film and many of its sequels. In 1964, Mirisch registered the Pink Panther film copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office; the copyright was renewed in 1991 by MGM as the successor-in-interest to Mirisch. Neither the treatment nor the screenplay for the Pink Panther film were ever separately published or registered with the Copyright Office.

Richlin died in 1990, and his heirs filed this lawsuit against MGM in 2004 claiming that, because Richlin co-authored the treatment that was incorporated into the Pink Panther film, he was also a co-author of the film and therefore a co-owner of the film copyright held by MGM. The district court granted summary judgment for MGM, determining that Richlin was not a co-author of the film because he had no control over the film and there was no evidence of intent—by contract or otherwise—that Richlin and Edwards would be coauthors of the film.

On appeal, the plaintiffs maintained that Richlin became a co-author of the film on account of his co-authorship of the underlying treatment. The Ninth Circuit began its analysis by noting that the 1909 Copyright Act governs the plaintiffs’ co-authorship claim and that, even though the 1909 Act does not expressly define joint work or co-authorship, case law defining joint authorship was well-established under the 1909 Act and was incorporated into and largely unchanged by the current 1976 Act. Accordingly, the Court deemed appropriate to look to the definition of “joint work” in the 1976 Act. Several factors, the Court observed, must be considered in determining co-authorship: whether there was an objective manifestation of a shared intent to be co-authors (a contract evidencing such intent or lack thereof is dispositive); whether the alleged co-author superintended or supervised the work by exercising control; and whether “the audience appeal of the work” can be attributed to both authors, as well as whether “the share of each in its success cannot be appraised.” Upon examining each of these factors, the Court found that no intent for co-authorship was expressed in the contracts between Richlin/Edwards and Mirisch, nor was there any evidence that Richlin had any supervisory powers over the creation of the film. The Court did find the “audience appeal” factor to favor the plaintiffs, but ruled that the two primary factors—intent and control—outweigh that factor. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision that Richlin was not a co-author of the film and had no renewal interest in the copyright of the film. The Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that the securing and renewal of the statutory copyright in the film automatically results in the securing and renewal of the statutory copyright in the treatment. According to the Court, Richlin and Edwards never secured the statutory copyright in the treatment as an independent and separate work in the first place, and consequently there was no right to renew.

Practice Note: This decision reassures Hollywood studios and film producers that, absent clear evidence of intent and creative control, merely contributing a story or screenplay for a movie does not make the contributor a co-author or a joint copyright owner of that movie.