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Colorized Movies Win Approval of Copyright Office

June 19, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In a ruling certain to intensify film industry protests, the government on Friday officially recognized the legitimacy of computerized coloring of black- and-white movies under U.S. copyright laws.

The Copyright Office, a division of the Library of Congress, announced a decision to register colorized films for copyright protection, providing they ″reveal a certain minimum amount of individual, creative, human authorship″ and are produced by existing computer technology.

The ruling does not cover trivial tinting of old movies, such as ″the coloring of a few frames or the enhancement of color in a previously colored film,″ the office said. ″The overall appearance of the motion picture musts be modified.″

The decision was a victory for Turner Broadcasting System Inc., which created a furor when it announced last September that it had purchased more than 100 black-and-white movies and was having them computer-tinted for television broadcast. The list included such classics as ″Casablanca,″ ″The Maltese Falcon″ and ″Yankee Doodle Dandy.″

The trend toward computer-coloring has stirred an uproar among screen actors, writers, directors, producers, critics, scholars and movie fans, from Woody Allen and Ginger Rogers to the American Film Institute and the National Council on the Arts.

The council, a presidentially appointed advisory body to the National Endowment for the Arts, unanimously adopted a resolution last November opposing computer coloring. ″It’s our way of saying, don’t screw with the classics,″ said actor Robert Stack, a council member.

Director John Huston, deploring the coloring of his ″Maltese Falcon,″ said he’d been ″bushwacked by the coloroids.″ RKO Pictures filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in federal court seeking to prohibit the tinting of 10 of its old movies, including the Charles Laughton version of ″Hunchback of Notre Dame.″

Responding to charges that black-and-white films are being mutilated and distorted by computer tinting, Turner Broadcasting says TV audiences prefer colored movies, and that whoever owns the rights to the original films can color them if they wish.

John Baumgartner, the Washington attorney for Turner Broadcasting and other computer-coloring interests, said the Copyright Office decision ″affirms our view that colorized versions of black-and-white films are clearly copyrightable, and recognizes the great investment of artistic and other human efforts involved in their creation.″

Essentially, the Copyright Office’s proposed ruling changes little in the current controversy, except to strengthen the colorizers’ defense against copyright challenges in the courts.

But the decision, which will become final on July 22 after 30 days of public comment, is likely to increase pressure for congressional passage of anti-coloring legislation introduced by Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., and backed by major elements of the movie industry.

Gephardt’s bill would forbid computer-coloring of black-and-white films without the consent of the original creators, namely the principal directors and screenwriters, even if they do not own the copyrights. This is the ″moral rights″ provision commonplace in copyright laws of many European countries.

″The ruling means that the economic incentives to colorize have been ratified by the Copyright Office,″ said Gephardt spokesman Mike Wessel, who said the House Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on Gephardt’s bill sometime this summer.

Ralph Oman, the federal register of copyrights, said his office did not consider the ″aesthetic or moral arguments about the propriety of coloring black-and-white film.″

Instead, he said, his lawyers focused on the narrow issue of whether copyright law regards colorized movies as ″derivative works.″ Those are new works based on earlier creations and involving modifications that ″represent an original work of authorship.″

The Copyright Office decided that computer-tinted movies, which call for a computer artist to select from among nearly 4,100 color hues for each movie, fit the definition of a ″derivative work.″

The Copyright Office administers U.S. copyright laws and registers more than half a million copyright claims annually for such artistic creations as books, movies, videotapes and cassette recordings.

The office said its decision will not affect the copyright status of the original black-and-white films. And if the originals have entered the public domain, after lapse of copyrights, others are free to use the same films to make different colored versions that might be eligible for copyright protection, it said.

Registration of a copyright claim with the Copyright Office is not necessary but affords certain legal advantages. For example, it establishes a public record of the claim, meets requirements for filing copyright infringement lawsuits in court, and establishes court evidence of the copyright’s validity.

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