New Breakfast at Tiffany’s Case Presents Cautionary Tale for Copyright Holders of Classic Content

A case filed on November 4, 2020 in Los Angeles Superior Court presents a cautionary tale of how old, dusty contracts can stymy the creation of new content based on classic works.

The Parties Spin A Tangled Web of the Rights to the Novella

The case, Alan U. Schwartz, Trustee of the Trust under Article Three of the Last Will and Testament of Truman Capote Dated May 4, 1981 v. Paramount Pictures Corporation (L.A. Super. Ct. filed November 4, 2020), concerns Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Paramount’s iconic 1961 film based on Truman Capote’s likewise iconic novella. While the novella has garnered literary acclaim, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of Hollywood’s most classic films ever. Indeed, the film’s imagery of Audrey Hepburn—hair wrapped in a bun, festooned with pearls and holding a long cigarette holder—is itself symbolic of old Hollywood. 

In this case, Capote’s literary trust sued Paramount seeking a declaratory judgment that Paramount has no rights to create any new television or feature film projects based on Capote’s novella. It would seem that answering such a straightforward question should not require intervention of a court, but such is not the case here.

According to the Complaint, the legal saga starts in 1958, soon after Capote first published his novella in Esquire Magazine. In December of that year, Capote and Paramount entered into an agreement granting Paramount “all the motion picture rights, forever and throughout the world, in and to an in connection with” the novella. Paramount then produced the iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s film, which garnered two Oscars and three other nominations, including one for Best Actress for Audrey Hepburn. 

Fast forward to 1991, seven years after Truman Capote passed away and his literary trust was formed.  Plaintiff contends that, under a 1990 Supreme Court case, Stewart v. Abend, 495 U.S. 207 (1990), Paramount’s motion picture rights for new adaptations of Breakfast at Tiffany’s reverted back to the literary trust, which prompted the parties to negotiate a new agreement in 1991. The 1991 agreement created a multi-year arrangement under which the feature film rights to the novella ping-ponged between them: The rights went to Paramount from August 1991 to August 1994; then back to the trust for the next six years, then back to Paramount for another three years, and then back to the trust thereafter.  No feature film based off Breakfast at Tiffany’s was produced during this time.

Decades Later, The Parties Dispute The Rights to Derivative Works for the Novella

The end of this tale came this year. In January 2020, the trust started negotiations with producers about a limited-run TV series based on the novella. Paramount issued a cease-and-desist letter to the trust, contending that it shared the trust’s TV rights under the 1991 Agreement. The parties apparently agreed to disagree on that issue, but they still commenced business-to-business negotiations to jointly produce a TV series. Nevertheless, in May 2020, Paramount told the trust that it no longer wanted to move forward with the TV project and instead wanted to produce a feature film to sell to a streaming platform. Critically, Paramount also contended it had all of the feature film rights to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and would not jointly produce it with the trust. The lawsuit followed.

Given the multiple contracts involved—the first dating back to more than sixty years ago—and the many changes in copyright law since the novella and film were first created, perhaps it is unsurprising that the parties now dispute which side has what rights to Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Further, the filing of the lawsuit may drive the parties to some sort of settlement that will clarify the issue. It is hard not to think, however, that more careful drafting and periodic review of the parties’ contractual rights could have avoided this lawsuit. It very well may be that the uncertain status of the legal rights to such an iconic film and well-regarded novella have stymied the creation of further works based on them, therefore inhibiting both sides from realizing the full value of their intellectual property.

The Lesson: Periodically Review and Clarify Your Legal Rights to Classic Content

Rather than let intellectual property fester in a quagmire of legal uncertainty, those holding valuable rights to classic works may be better off periodically reviewing the status of their copyright and contract rights and, where those rights are uncertain, seek clarity and renegotiate before projects are green-lit and unnecessary litigation ensues.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm or its clients. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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