Supreme Court’s ‘Ben-Hur’ Copyright Case Changed Hollywood Film Rights

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In 1971, when CBS first aired the 1959 film “Ben-Hur” on television, over 85 million people tuned in to see this Hollywood show of friendship, betrayal, revenge, redemption. and – of course – a thrilling chariot race. .

One of the most-watched films on television during this era, the hit film directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins and Stephen Boyd remains a popular Easter viewing tradition for many people. Its depiction of Jewish hero Judah Ben-Hur confronting the betrayal of Roman friend Messala against the backdrop of Christ’s crucifixion continues to draw countless viewers each year.

However, this film – winner of 11 Oscars, including Best Picture – was not the first film about this fictional story in the Holy Land. Two “Ben-Hur” silent films were produced in 1907 and 1925. The first spawned a major intellectual property lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court, leaving a legacy that still affects the film industry today. today.

“Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” began in 1880 as a novel written by former Union Civil War general Lew Wallace, who played a significant role in the battles of Fort Donelson and Shiloh, and in Defense of Washington, D.C. It was the best-selling book of its day, becoming one of the most popular of the 19th century – even surpassing in sales the runaway success of Harriet Beecher Stowe” Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.

There were “waves of religious ecstasy following the publication of the novel, which is the most influential Christian book written in the 19th century,” Amy Lifson said in “Ben-Hur: The Book That Shook the World », an article she wrote. for Humanities magazine from the National Endowment of the Humanities in 2009.

Wallace rebuffed numerous illegal attempts to go after the huge popularity of his story. But many still managed to squeeze through the era of looser copyright laws, including Ben-Hur Flour, Ben-Hur Cigars, and even Ben-Hur Bicycles.

The novel also spawned an important dramatic scene – authorized by the author – which involved live horses racing on treadmills in the climactic chariot race. An estimated 10 million people attended this Broadway extravaganza and the ensuing touring production, which lasted approximately 6,000 performances over 20 years.

Two years after Wallace’s death in 1905, the fledgling film industry aimed for “Ben-Hur”. New York-based Kalem Company began production without permission on a silent film of the same name (unhyphenated) featuring many ideas from the book, including the chariot race. The film studio filmed this scene at Sheepshead Bay Race Track using off-duty soldiers from the 3rd Battery in Brooklyn in costumes provided by the Metropolitan Opera House, as well as horses from the National Guard Artillery Unit from New York.

The 15-minute, single-reel silent film premiered in theaters in December 1907. After around 500 screenings, it was shut down in early 1908 by legal complaints of copyright infringement. Henry Lane Wallace, the general’s son, along with the book’s publisher, Harper & Brothers, and the play’s producers, Marc Klaw and Abraham Lincoln Erlanger, joined forces to challenge Kalem in court.

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Silent films were the Internet of the day: the industry was so new that many regulations governing other media did not apply to filmmaking. Lawmakers have been lax in revising copyright rules to encompass this new form of artistic expression and commercial enterprise.

At the time, the publisher had control of the late author’s book. According to the 1909 edition of the Federal Reporter, the theater producers “had the story dramatized, and Harper and Bros. duly protected the dramatization and then granted Klaw and Erlanger the exclusive right to produce the same on stage “.

“Kalem failed to acquire the motion picture rights from Ben Hur,” film historian Terry Ramsaye wrote of the affair in his classic 1925 book A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion. Picture”, “largely for the rather simple reason that the film rights were unknown.

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The film studio claimed its screenwriter, who was working from a first edition of the book, had no knowledge of the copyright, which appears to have been granted just before the play was developed in 1899. Additionally, Kalem’s lawyers argued that the scenes in these moving “photographs” were a form of artistic expression and exempt from copyright protection.

A federal judge disagreed with the defendant’s claims. On May 5, 1908, Judge Emile Henry Lacombe ruled that Kalem had indeed violated the law by showing “moving pictures” of ideas from a copyrighted book and play.

The film studio quickly appealed the decision, arguing that the film was an exhibition of photographs, which was not specifically mentioned in existing copyright law. The defendant asserted that only Congress had the right to regulate whether film producers needed permission to depict scenes from a copyrighted novel.

Judge Henry Galbraith Ward of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals also did not accept this argument. On March 16, 1909, he dismissed the appeal, ruling “that moving pictures would be a form of expression…infringing upon the author’s exclusive right to dramatize his writings and publicly perform such dramatization.”

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This decision set a date with the Supreme Court. This time Kalem brought out the heavy artillery. The company had partnered with the Motion Picture Patents Co. (MPPC), a sort of cabal of film producers who sought to protect their industry. MPPC funded this legal challenge, which was heard by the judges on October 21 and November 1, 1911.

The defense attorney argued that Kalem broke no law because the film studio produced an entirely different form of artistic interpretation, since the film’s footage constituted new media not covered by current regulations. The defense also rested on the fact that Kalem did not cause the film to be shown; rather, he had just created the product, which was exhibited by others.

The Supreme Court was not impressed. In a unanimous decision, Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said Nov. 13 that Kalem had created “an unlawful dramatization of the novel,” ruling that when a copyrighted story is told with moving images, ” they are used to infringe a right which the statutory reservations.

Holmes also dismissed the argument that Kalem was not at fault because he had not actually shown the films in theaters, citing as evidence a studio-funded marketing campaign intended to lure viewers to screenings.

“Defendant not only expected but relied through publicity on the use of his films for the dramatic reproduction of history,” he wrote. “That was the most obvious purpose they could be used for, and the one they were specifically designed for.”

MPPC paid a $25,000 fine, which made “Ben Hur” the most expensive film ever made at the time. Additionally, the court ruled that the film should be destroyed. Fortunately, a copy was later discovered and donated to the Library of Congress. It can be viewed here.

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The “Ben-Hur” saga resurfaced in theaters with another silent treatment in 1925. It was also a huge success, becoming MGM’s highest-grossing film of the year. It was reissued in 1931 as a sound film with a musical soundtrack and sound effects. The Wallace family had sold the film rights to Erlanger for $600,000 (about $17 million today); Erlanger then offered them to Samuel Goldwyn in 1922 for a reported $1 million plus half the gross, making this version of the film the most expensive ever made in the silent era.

MGM retained the rights to the 1959 production with Heston. At $15 million, this “Ben-Hur” was the most expensive film of its time. With worldwide box office receipts of around $100 million, it remains one of the highest-grossing films of all time after adjusting for inflation.

“Ben-Hur” was remade twice more: in an international miniseries in 2010, which was well received, and in another film in 2016, which was panned by critics, who posed a version of the question: “Why play with a classic?”

The impact of the Supreme Court’s decision continues to be felt in Hollywood today. In the book “The Ancient World in Silent Cinema”, Jon Solomon writes that he had a beneficial influence on the film industry, contrary to the concerns of Kalem and MPPC: “The legal use of copyrighted properties Authorship flourished, and skilled screenwriters would now become important parts of the filmmaking process.

For more than a century, this ruling has been cited in numerous court cases — involving everything from Mickey Mouse watches to digitally downloaded music.

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