Friday, January 2, 2009

Copyright in Hitler's Globe: Who Owns It?

Following up on my recent post about the copyright implications of having a pinball machine in the background of a movie scene, the NY Post's Page Six brings word of a similar potential dispute involving a globe. Hitler's globe, to be specific. Explains the Post:

Robert Pritikin - who penned such jingles as "Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco Treat" and has a $40 million art collection - owns several Hitler artifacts, including the Fuehrer's notorious globe, which he used to plan U-boat attacks from his compound in the Bavarian Alps.

The globe was replicated and prominently featured in "Valkyrie," the thriller about a real-life plot to assassinate Hitler - and that has Pritikin mulling legal action. In 2007, Pritikin paid $100,000 for the globe and had its likeness copyrighted to keep it from being used in propaganda by sick neo-Nazi groups. So he was stunned to see it in the movie from Cruise's United Artists studios.

Keeping in mind that Page Six, as much as I love it, shouldn't be relied on for accurate legal reporting, I don't see how Pritikin has a case against UA. Even if Pritikin owns the actual physical globe, that doesn't mean he owns the copyright in the globe, which would give him the right to block others from copying/displaying it. It's basic copyright law that ownership of a physical object is distinct from ownership of copyright in it:

§ 202. Ownership of copyright as distinct from ownership of material object

Ownership of a copyright, or of any of the exclusive rights under a copyright, is distinct from ownership of any material object in which the work is embodied. Transfer of ownership of any material object, including the copy or phonorecord in which the work is first fixed, does not of itself convey any rights in the copyrighted work embodied in the object; nor, in the absence of an agreement, does transfer of ownership of a copyright or of any exclusive rights under a copyright convey property rights in any material object.

The Page Six item does say that Pritikin "had [the globe's] likeness copyrighted." But only the author of a work (or his successor) owns the copyright -- not the guy who happened to buy the physical work decades after it was made. We need better info about who (if anyone) actually owns the copyright in the globe before determining whether UA has anything to worry about (other than Valkyrie's mediocre box office).

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