Who Watches the Lawmen?

I’m not what you would call a comic book geek.  I respect the form and its fans, and I enjoy the stories when packaged in collections, but I never had the attention span to stick with anything published in serialized format.

However, I just finished Watchmen.  Accordingly, I am psyched for the film, and have spent far too much time today browsing for acclaim for the novel and spoilers for the movie (ironically, I apparently need to prepare myself to be disappointed with the inconsistencies to be truly excited about it).

To bring this back on topic: most fans of the novel who have been following the production of the movie probably knew about the massive copyright battle that took place between Warner Bros. and Fox concerning production and release of this film.  Wikipedia, as usual, has a decent summary:

On February 14, 2008, 20th Century Fox brought a lawsuit against Warner Bros. that alleged copyright infringement on the Watchmen film property. The studio believed that it retained the rights to produce the film, or at least distribute it, no matter how many studios Watchmen has passed through, and sought to block its release. Warner Bros. said that Fox has repeatedly failed to exercise its rights over various incarnations of the production.

Long story short: The dispute went to court.  The trial court ruled that Fox did, indeed, own the relevant rights, and Fox stated their intention to seek an order delaying or preventing the release of the film.  Fans freaked out to a certain extent, worried that this eagerly anticipated film might never see the light of day.

However, when you looked at the overall picture, it was clear that outcome would never happen.  Some off-the-cuff armchair analysis of why I think so after the jump.

Warner Bros. had the movie in the can and ready to go, and as the hot superhero movie of the year, it was guaranteed to make approximately a zillion dollars.  Even from the point of view of someone who isn’t a litigator, it seemed like the only thing the lawsuit was really going to determine was what percentage of the giant pile of money Fox should feel entitled to ask for in the settlement agreement.  It wouldn’t be rational for Fox to completely prevent the release, because even if they only got a small percentage of the cut, a small percentage of a guaranteed blockbuster movie that they paid practically zero production cost to obtain is better than a big percentage of nothing.

Of course, Fox and Warner Bros. eventually did settle, and the movie will be released, and Fox will get a nice chunk of change for their legal efforts.

There weren’t many thorny legal issues involved (mostly questions of fact, it seems), but it was still interesting to follow.  It’s not that often that the positions of the parties in high-profile settlement negotiations over ownership of a piece of IP are so well-defined and separable.

It’s also interesting to see a copyright ownership settlement come down on lines similar to how patent cross-licensing negotiations have been explained to me: who is infringing what might not be as important as deciding what portion of the overall market is covered by each party’s portfolio, and then calculating royalty payments to shift the profits in the same direction.  Here, Fox may have owned the underlying rights to the source material, but Warner Bros. likely owned the rights to the screenplays, storyboards, footage, effects, and other derivative works based on it.  Fox could have asserted their rights to sink the whole thing, but instead the parties got together, determined the value of the individual portfolios, and came to a settlement that could compensate both sides accordingly.


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