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Today’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in the case of Classic Media Inc vs Winifred Knight Mewborn is yet another win for intellectual property pit bull lawyer Marc Toberoff. Mewborn is the daughter of Eric Knight, the daughter of the world-famous children’s author and novel Lassie Come Home and at issue were all Lassie’s motion picture (including musical motion picture), television and radio rights for the literary work[s] throughout the world for the full period of the renewal copyrights in the work[s] and any further renewals or extensions. “Seventy years after Eric Knight first penned his tale of the devoted Lassie who struggled to come home, at least some of the fruits of his labors will benefit his daughters,” today’s court decision said. Toberoff is the bane of Big Media fresh off this victory as well as a recent win on behalf of Superman creator Jerry Seigel. (See my previous, Ruling Against Warner On Superman: How Legally Greedy Can Big Media Get?)

Today’s decision is very technical but also very meaningful. “The 9th Circuit is sending a message that authors and their families have these rights, and it’s not going to let Big Business Entertainment squash these people,” a legal source tells me. The 9th Circuit granted Mewborn’s appeal of a U.S. district court judge’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Classic Media Inc and denial of Mewborn’s partial summary judgment motion. Each party had sought declaratory relief as to their respective copyright interests in the Lassie Works, works that were in their renewal copyright terms on January 1, 1978 when the Copyright Act of 1976 took effect. But Mewborn’s appeal required the 9th Circuit to determine whether the Act’s termination of transfer right, 17 U.S.C. § 304(c), can be extinguished by a post-1978 re-grant of the very rights previously assigned before 1978. “Because we conclude that such a result would circumvent the plain statutory language of the 1976 Act, as well as the congressional intent to give the benefit of the additional renewal term to the author and his heirs, we hold that the post-1978 assignment did not extinguish Mewborn’s statutory termination rights.”

Toberoff was defending the now 87-year-old Mewborn after Classic Media sued her for exercising her rights under the 1976 Copyright Act to recapture her father’s Lassie. Classic Media’s lawyer, Bonnie Eskenazi of the Century City law firm Greenberg Glusker, beat Toberoff by winning a summary judgment in lower court saying his client had no valid claim. Toberoff appealed that judgment and now triumphs because the 9th Circuit directed the lower court to this time enter summary judgment in Mewborn’s favor. Today the court noted the incredible nastiness of Greenberg Glusker which “spewed acrimonious charges, threats and demands” as well as “a vituperative gem of a letter” against Knight’s daughter:

On April 12, 1996, Mewborn served a notice of termination within the five-year period required by § 304(c) on Palladium Limited Partnership, LTI’s then successor-in-interest in the Lassie Works. Mewborn sought to recapture her motion picture, television and radio rights by terminating the 1976 Assignment effective May 1, 1998. This began the Lassie Works’ difficult journey home, as counsel on behalf of the parties—but predominantly Classic—spewed acrimonious charges, threats and demands over the rights to the works in a series of correspondence of not much relevance, but nonetheless included in the record before us. On April 1, 1998, counsel for LTI’s then successor-in-interest, Golden Books Family Entertainment, wrote to Mewborn, “rejecting and repudiating” Mewborn’s Termination Notice, and threatening suit against Mewborn. Mewborn discovered in the autumn of 2004 that Classic was preparing to produce a motion picture entitled Lassie Come Home, based on her father’s works. On March 23, 2005, Mewborn’s counsel wrote to Classic, the subsequent successor-in-interest to the Lassie Works, and its production partners demanding that Classic account for and pay to Mewborn her share of profits from Classic’s exploitation of the Lassie motion picture, television and radio rights pursuant to the 1996 Termination Notice, and that Classic cease the unauthorized exploitation of the works in the United Kingdom. Classic’s counsel responded with a vituperative gem of a letter dated March 29, 2005, accusing Mewborn of “extortion,” threatening to sue Mewborn and her counsel “personally,” and claiming that “[t]he damages to which Classic will hold you accountable are enormous . . . [and] irreparable.” The letter asserted that the 1976 Assignment was a “complete irrelevancy” and advised that Mewborn should “govern [herself] accordingly.” This bombastic correspondence did little to further communication or deter litigation.”