A studio trying to rise again from the ashes of bankruptcy has pinned some of those hopes on bringing a 1980s box office bomb to television sets everywhere with the help of Kevin Smith. (Well, not anymore, it would seem). But first, MGM will need a court to declare it does indeed own the rights to the Buckaroo Banzai franchise.
If you’re not completely familiar with Buckaroo Banzai, don’t feel left out. While the character has a cult following, it’s all based on a single 1984 film called The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension starring future RoboCop Peter Weller in the title role. Banzai is a superhero of many talents – a physicist, a neurosurgeon, a test pilot and a rock musician – arguably the world’s most interesting man before Dos Equis came along.
Last year, MGM Television Entertainment hired Smith of Dogma and Clerks fame to finally bring Banzai to television, or at least to Amazon’s subscription streaming service. But the studio had just one problem: Banzai’s creator, Earl Mac Rauch, says it’s he who owns the Buckaroo Banzai franchise, not MGM.
The studio, along with two of its affiliates – Orion Pictures and PFE Library Acquisition Company Inc. – have now filed suit against Rauch and 8th Dimension director W.D. Richter, asking a federal judge to make it clear once and for all that Buckaroo Banzai belongs to MGM, and no one else.
In the complaint, MGM not only claims Rauch and Richter signed their rights away back in the early 1980s to make the film, but that even if they did have a case, the statute of limitations to make a copyright claim has run out. By re-enforcing MGM’s ownership of the property, the studio hopes to put a stop to what it’s called Rauch’s and Richter’s “poison” public relations campaign that has them claiming MGM only owns the rights to a single film, not the franchise.
The crux of MGM’s position, according to its complaint, comes down to a series of documents both Rauch and Richter signed in 1981 which declare their contributions to be “work-for-hire.” This is a key designation when it comes to copyright law, because courts typically have found that in “work-for-hire” situations, it’s the employer that owns the rights to the finished product, not the creator itself.
Probably the best example could be Marvel’s Stan Lee, credited with creating a number of comic book characters that have now made the company billions of dollars. However, ownership of those characters lie with Marvel, not Lee, because Lee created those valuable properties under a “work-for-hire” contract.
Rauch and Richter, however, say MGM has it all wrong.
San Francisco-based attorney Kenneth Keller wrote a lengthy letter to MGM on behalf of Rauch and Richter last September, outlining why he believes his clients have the rights to Buckaroo Banzai.
“Because MGM does not own the copyright to the Buckaroo Banzai character and setting, it cannot develop any project outside of the limited rights in one specific screenplay. If MGM continues forward with any such development without my clients’ permission, they will be forced to consider all legal options to protect their rights.”
Rauch, according to Keller, developed not only the Banzai character (which he originally named “Buckaroo Bandy”) long before coming to MGM, but he also had treatments for several episodic stories. An MGM executive had a chance to peruse all those treatments, and instead of picking up the whole package, opted for just a single story, which became 8th Dimension.
Although there were plans to explore a sequel, the film made just $6.3 million against a budget of what was more than double that. Normally a film like 8th Dimension would fall into obscurity, but the then newly developing home video market gave the film new life, and a rather sizable following grew around it.
MGM did try to create an animated series in 2009, but Keller claimed Warner Bros. backed out when that studio realized MGM didn’t have clear title to Buckaroo Banzai.
“Therefore, MGM’s chain of title in and to the motion picture … is not clear. But it is clear that Mr. Rauch owns copyrights in five documented episodes from the world of Buckaroo Banzai as well as owning the overall rights to the world of Buckaroo Banzai, the characters, plots and themes.
“It is equally clear that MGM never obtained any rights in those works, other than perhaps the specific rights to the screenplay that Mr. Rauch wrote in 1981 that became the motion picture …”
MGM claims in its lawsuit that Rauch and Richter are “falsely claiming” ownership, and using that to disrupt development of what it believes to be its intellectual property. MGM says that while it’s been more than 30 years since the release of the film, it wasn’t until recently that Rauch and Richter even tried to claim ownership of the franchise.
Since they were aware that MGM had pursued at least some kind of television series since 2009, Rauch and Richter should also fall victim to statute of limitations, the studio said. MGM’s attorneys cite a federal law that requires challenges to copyright ownership to happen within three years after learning about it, which means Rauch and Richter would have had to file their claims against MGM no later than 2012.
Keller, however, answered that preemptively as well. In his September letter, the attorney said the statute of limitations doesn’t apply to Rauch because “no one other than Mr. Rauch has ever claimed ownership in the earlier Buckaroo Banzai works.”
This could be a tough one for the courts to unravel. So far, only a complaint has been filed by the plaintiffs as a response from Rauch and Richter is not yet due.
A complaint lays out just one side’s position in a legal matter, and such claims have not been adjudicated in a court.
MGM is asking for the courts to finalize ownership of the Buckaroo Banzai franchise, and to have Rauch and Richter pay both attorney and court costs for pursuing the action.
To read the full complaint, click here.
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