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Anne Rice -- Advocate
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Nothing kills the urge to blog like writing a legal article with a tight deadline. At least until you run into a case like Konigsberg Intl. Inc. v. Rice. To Ann Rice fans this 1994 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals imbroglio must be mouldering news, but it certainly grabbed me by the throat. I'll quote the court opinion,(16 F.3d 355) by Judge Kozinski:
"In 1987, after a lunch meeting with movie producers Frank Konigsberg and Larry Sanitsky, author Anne Rice allegedly entered into an oral agreement to sketch out a romantic melodrama involving a love triangle between a resurrected mummy, an English heiress and Queen Cleopatra. Based on this simple premise, Rice would create a "bible" -- a detailed story which could form the basis for derivative works in various entertainment media. Rice would then write the novel, and Konigsberg's and Sanitsky's companies (K & S) would have two years from the date a television network officially notified them of a decision regarding a teleplay of THE MUMMY to exploit the television and movie rights, with an option to extend. K & S drafted a contract along these lines, but the parties didn't settle on final terms or sign any agreement. Rice simply delivered the bible, and the producers forked over $50,000. In the next two years, Rice went on to write and copyright a novel called THE MUMMY. K & S failed to exploit their rights but, allegedly, tried to exercise their option to extend. They say Rice refused; she says there was never an agreement, and, even if there was, K & S failed to extend it within the option period.

"Disappointed to lose rights in what turned out to be a best-seller, K & S filed a declaratory judgment action asserting co-ownership of the bible, an exclusive license to the motion picture and related rights. The district court dismissed K & S's complaint because the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. Section 204(a), requires a signed, written transfer of copyright to establish co-ownership or an exclusive license. Effects Assocs., Inc. v. Cohen ("Effects II"), 908 F.2d 555, 557 [ 15 USPQ2d 1559 ] (9th Cir. 1990). K & S could produce no such writing.

"That might well have been the end of the story, but for the fact that Rice thereafter tried to vindicate her position by writing a somewhat indignant letter to K & S's lawyer: " [A]s far as I am concerned," she proclaimed, "these contracts, though never signed, were honored to the letter. They got exactly what they paid for. A bible script and the television rights to the novel, THE MUMMY for over two years." K & S only failed, Rice claimed, "to pick up their option, or extend it."

"Not only did this letter fail to shame K & S into contrition, it gave them what they thought was the missing link to their argument -- a writing signed by the author. Armed with this new evidence, K & S brought a Rule 60(b) motion and a request for leave to amend their complaint, claiming that they now had a writing sufficient to satisfy section 204 of the Copyright Act.

"Though hardly Rice's intention, her advocative effort gives us an opportunity to address an interesting and difficult issue concerning the nature of the Copyright Act's written instrument requirement."

To make a legal story short, the court reasoned that Rice's letter wasn't sufficient to support the claimed oral agreement since the agreement, if it had existed, would have lapsed before the letter was written.

What interests me more than the legal principal is the insight the case offers into books (or authors themselves) being treated (sometimes willingly) as nothing more than product. I doubt if I have a more apt comment to make than the one with which Judge Kozinski prefaces his opinion:

"Inside many a practicing lawyer there's a novelist struggling to be born. The converse is also true: Novelists sometimes yearn to be lawyers. All things considered, it's best if all concerned stick with their own callings."

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