Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Eighth Circuit Finds For Warner Brothers On Copyright Issue

The Eighth Circuit has sided in part with Warner Brothers in Warner Brothers v. X One X Productions. The studio sued a company that makes and sells posters of famous characters from movies, and WB alleged copyright infringement. The Court determined that, as far as the depictions of the characters in the movies was concerned, the company did infringe the studio's copyright.

It is clear that when cartoons or movies are copyrighted, a component of that copyright protection extends to the characters themselves, to the extent that such characters are sufficiently distinctive. See, e.g., Gaiman v. McFarlane, 360 F.3d 644, 661 (7th Cir. 2004) ("[A] stock character, once he was drawn and named and given speech [in a comic book series] . . . became sufficiently distinctive to be copyrightable."); Olson v. Nat'l Broad. Co., Inc., 855 F.2d 1446, 1452 (9th Cir. 1988) (holding that "copyright protection may be afforded to characters visually depicted in a television series or in a movie" for "characters who are especially distinctive"); Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 900 F. Supp. at 1296 (holding that plaintiffs' copyrighted James Bond films established a copyright in the character of James Bond). The district court thoroughly and accurately applied this principle to the instant case, and the parties do not contest the district court's analysis. We agree with the district court's conclusion that Dorothy, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind, and Tom and Jerry each exhibit "consistent, widely identifiable traits" in the films that are sufficiently distinctive to merit character protection under the respective film copyrights. See Rice v. Fox Broad. Co., 330 F.3d 1170, 1175 (9th Cir. 2003).


The film actors' portrayals of the characters at issue here appear to rely upon elements of expression far beyond the dialogue and descriptions in the books. AVELA has identified no instance in which the distinctive mannerisms, facial expressions, voice, or speech patterns of a film character are anticipated in the corresponding book by a literary description that evokes, to any significant extent, what the actor portrayed. Put more simply, there is no evidence that one would be able to visualize the distinctive details of, for example, Clark Gable's performance before watching the movie Gone with the Wind, even if one had read the book beforehand. At the very least, the scope of the film copyrights covers all visual depictions of the film characters at issue, except for any aspects of the characters that were injected into the public domain by the publicity materials.


With respect to the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry, we note that on the spectrum of character copyrightability, the category of cartoon characters often is cited as the paradigm of distinctiveness. See, e.g., Warner Bros., Inc. v. Am. Broad. Cos., 720 F.2d 231, 240 (2d Cir. 1983); 1-2 Nimmer on Copyright § 2.12. The record indicates that the Tom & Jerry publicity materials consist of just one public domain movie poster for each copyrighted short film, and the visual characteristics of Tom and Jerry in the first poster, for Puss Gets the Boot (released in 1940), are quite different from the characters popularly recognized as Tom and Jerry today. In addition, the first poster by itself reveals no distinctive character or visual traits, but only visual characteristics typical to cats and mice. As a result, the first poster is essentially a generic cat-and-mouse cartoon drawing that cannot establish independently copyrightable   characters. Cf. Walker, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38882, 2008 WL 2050964 at *5-6 (finding a four-panel cartoon drawing featuring a personified sponge lacked the distinctiveness necessary to establish a copyrightable sponge character).

Meanwhile, the copyrighted short film that immediately followed the first poster revealed Tom and Jerry's character traits and signature antagonistic relationship. With the benefit of these strong character traits, the first short film was sufficient to establish the copyrightable elements of the Tom and Jerry characters as depicted therein. See ante at 15-16. In such a situation, each subsequent movie poster could inject into the public domain only the increments of expression, if any, that the movie poster itself added to the already-copyrighted characters from previously released Tom & Jerry films. See Russell v. Price, 612 F.2d 1123, 1128 (9th Cir. 1979) ("[A]lthough the derivative work may enter the public domain, the matter contained therein which derives from a work still covered by statutory copyright is not dedicated to the public."); 1-3 Nimmer on Copyright § 3.07. Because they "derive[] from a work still covered by statutory copyright," the underlying characters of Tom and Jerry are not in the public domain until the copyrights in the Tom & Jerry short films begin to expire.

In contrast to Tom & Jerry, the record is clear that a veritable blitz of publicity materials for Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz was distributed prior to the publication of each film. However, with respect to Gone with the Wind, the publicity material images are far from the cartoon-character end of the spectrum of character copyrightability. There is nothing consistent and distinctive about the publicity material images of Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. They certainly lack any cartoonishly unique physical attributes, and neither one is shown in a consistent, unique outfit and hairstyle. See Walker, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38882, 2008 WL 2050964 at *6; cf. Siegel, 542 F. Supp. 2d at 1126 (finding "a black and white leotard and cape" sufficiently distinctive to establish an element of character copyrightability). As a result, the district court correctly held that the publicity material images for Gone with the Wind are no more than "pictures of the actors in costume." Indeed, if the publicity material images from Gone with the Wind were sufficient to inject all visual depictions of the characters Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler into the public domain, then almost any image of Vivian Leigh or Clark Gable would be sufficient to do so as well. Therefore, the only images in the public domain are the precise images in the publicity materials for Gone with the Wind.

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