Friday, July 11, 2008

Classic Media v. Mewborn (9th Cir. - July 11, 2008)

This was one of the sleepier weeks in the Ninth Circuit and California Court of Appeal. There were cases, to be sure. Including some interesting ones. But the drama wasn't there as much.

Judge Wardlaw ends the week with a case that probably falls along those same lines. One that's not doctrinally all that fascinating -- unless you get really hot and bothered by some fact-specific copyright renewal disputes -- but that nonetheless manages to pique one's interest, if only at the margin.

I liked reading the opinion for two reasons. First, it concerns who owns "Lassie Come Home". And who doesn't like Lassie? It also gives Judge Wardlaw the opportunity to both describe the history of the series in some detail (e.g., "Eric Knight authored the beloved children’s story, “Lassie Come Home,” about a boy and his dog who, when sold to a rich duke by the boy’s poverty-stricken family, makes an arduous journey to return home to her original owner. Inspired by the harsh realities of life during the Great Depression, the story of the fearless collie, Lassie, and the boy who loved her was first published in the December 17, 1938 issue of The Saturday Evening Post . . . .") as well as to make neat little side references like describing the subsquent copyright fight with the line "This began the Lassie Works’ difficult journey home . . . ." Ho ho ho!

Second, Judge Wardlaw also includes snippets of totally irrelevant -- but nonetheless interesting and informative -- exchanges between counsel below. This portion of the opinion begins (and I liked this part, as to both substance and style) by noting that "counsel on behalf of the parties—but predominantly Classic—spewed acrimonious charges, threats and demands over the rights to the works in a series of correspondence of not much relevance, but nonetheless included in the record before us." Then she goes on to describe the content of some of these exchanges, and I especially liked the line in which Judge Wardlaw says: "Classic’s counsel responded with a vituperative gem of a letter dated March 29, 2005, accusing Mewborn of “extortion,” threatening to sue Mewborn and her counsel “personally,” and claiming that “[t]he damages to which Classic will hold you accountable are enormous . . . [and] irreparable.”" Nice! Especially the "vituperative gem" part! Plus, she ends the paragraph with "This bombastic correspondence did little to further communication or deter litigation." Which I'm quite confident is entirely correct.

Sure, all this stuff is irrelevant. But it makes the opinion interesting to read. And, more importantly, it also gives one the keen sense that even judges on the Court of Appeals -- rightly, in my view -- don't like it when the parties or their lawyers are total jerks. Even if their being a bunghole isn't technically relevant to the appeal. It reminds lawyers, in a subtle but very real way, that there may well be consequences to litigating a case in the hyperaggressive (and totally counterproductive) manner in which lawyers all-too-often perform their jobs. And that even if you get away with it in the district court, or in one case, eventually, this type of stuff may well come back to haunt you.

In short, the case reminds one that, even for lawyers, karma's a bitch. And rightly so.