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Added on: 15/1/2009 12:31
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    Who watches the "Watchmen"?

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    Media lawyer, Steve Kuncewicz from law firm Ralli comments on the copyright row that is underway about The Dark Knight sequel, Watchmen.

    Who watches the "Watchmen"?

    It's that time of year again - detox product sales go through the roof, resolutions are made and broken and the film industry looks ahead to what's going to be big in 2009.

    In particular, the movie industry has already begun to place its bets on which blockbusters are going to be the most successful over the coming months after box-office receipts from 2008 broke new financial records. This was thanks to the success of "Iron Man", "Hancock", "Mammia Mia" and, of course "The Dark Knight", which should shortly hit the billion-dollar mark on ticket sales as well as becoming the fastest -selling DVD and Blu-Ray of all time.

    Ask anyone in the know which movies are going to be big over 2009 and you'll most probably be told to look out for "Transformers 2 - Revenge of The Fallen", "Wolverine", "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince", "Bruno" and "Avatar", but perhaps the most anticipated release of the coming year among fans and critics alike is "Watchmen", Warner Bros' mega-budget follow-up to "Dark Knight".

    "Watchmen" is a complex and extremely dark take on the typical superhero tale involving a murder mystery set in an alternate 1985 where the US won the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon has been president for over a decade. Footage from the movie, directed by "300"'s Zack Snyder, has already won over many cynics who have kept track on the movie's development over the twenty years since its original release as a graphic novel and online buzz is growing to a fever pitch. There's only one problem. It may never get released.

    The one super power which it seems Warner Bros. didn't count on was copyright. Over its twenty years in development, "Watchmen" was set to be made by a number of different studios, including Paramount and 20th Century Fox and was shopped around by its producers until, after the success of the huge number of superhero- based movies of the last ten years, Warner Bros. was ready to take the chance and shoot what many believe to be an "unfilmable" story.

    In February 2008, Fox brought a claim against Warner Bros.which alleged copyright infringement of the "Watchmen" movie. Fox believes that it retained the rights to make the film, or at least to distribute it, no matter how many studios it has passed through, and is trying to block its release.

    Warner Bros. says that Fox has repeatedly failed to exercise its rights to make the movie and that this is a last-ditch tactic to derail one of Warners' biggest releases. Fox had bought the rights to make the movie of the original graphic novel in 1986 and claims that, despite dumping the project in 1994, a separate 1991 deal which saw most of the rights go back to the movie's Producers still left them with the option of retaining distribution and sequel rights to the project, and a share of the profits, should it be made by any other studio.

    Warner Bros. began developing Watchmen in 2005 and Fox alleges that it contacted them before shooting began to claim that they were now in breach of Fox's deal with the project's producers. Warner Bros. claimed that they did not know about either deal, and that in 2005, Fox had chosen not to make the movie based on the most recent on which the movie is now based.

    For months, Warners have tired to have the case thrown out of court, but a Christmas Eve ruling from the Judge dealing with the claim stated that Fox do own a copyright interest in the final movie, which led to Fox seeking an order that the current release date of March 6 should be delayed.

    Steve Kuncewicz, Media and Intellectual Property Lawyer at Ralli in Manchester, had the following comment:

    "Cases like this are actually very common within the movie industry, but this is one of the few which has reached court and which may actually stop the release of a movie. The Spider-Man franchise took nearly 15 years to finally reach the screen due to similar problems.

    What is amazing about this case is that Warners did not deal with the copyright claim by Fox before production go underway by figuring out exactly who owned the rights to make the film. Fans are blaming Fox for the potential delay in the release date, but Warners should take their fair share of criticism.

    Many projects of this size take years to finally reach the screen and the issue of who owns the rights to make them is usually very complicated. This whole case may also have something to do with the fact that Fox has not done particularly well with their movies at the box office for the past few years and with the credit crunch very much at the front of their minds, they may simply want what they see as their share of what could be one of the biggest movies of the year. I would imagine that a deal will eventually be done to allow the film to be released on March 6, but with at least some of the profits going to Fox. It says a great deal that Fox only issued Court proceedings against Warners after shooting was completed.

    This is a great example of how the creative industry needs to be extremely careful to ensure that they have the rights to make a particular project. On a much smaller scale, a recent theatre production of "The Xtra Factor" in Manchester was forced to close after the owners of the X Factor brand threatened to take action against them. Whenever you use someone else's material, Intellectual Property and having the rights to use it should always be the first thing you think about".

    The final ruling on the release date is due on January 20th, but there remains a very real chance that no-one will watch "Watchmen". At least, that is, for now.

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