On May 28, 1991, France's Supreme Court, the Cour de cassation, rendered its long-awaited decision in Huston v. la Cinq, a controversy that opposed the heirs of film director John Huston against the French television station Channel 5 and its licensor, Turner Entertainment. Defendants sought to broadcast a colorized version of Huston's black and white film classic, The Asphalt jungle. Plaintiffs, John Huston's children and Ben Maddow, who collaborated with Huston on the film's screenplay, asserted that broadcast of a colorized version violated Huston's and Maddow's moral right of integrity in the motion picture. The central question before the Cour de cassation, however, concerned not the substance of the integrity claim, but plaintiffs' entitlement to invoke it.
Under French law, the moral right to preserve a work's artistic integrity is an incident of authorship. Upon creating the work, authors are invested with exclusive moral and economic rights. While economic rights may be transferred, moral rights are both inalienable and perpetual. Thus, a film director who has granted all economic interests in her work nonetheless retains the moral rights to oppose violations of the work's integrity and to receive authorship credit for her work. Under U.S. law, by contrast, film directors do not enjoy rights tantamount to, or even approaching, their French counterparts. Most significantly, under U.S. copyright law's "works made for hire" doctrine, employees, or in most circumstances, commissioned creators who participate in the elaboration of a motion picture, are not considered "authors": the film's producer is deemed the "author."
The problem in the Huston case therefore was: Who is the "author" of the film? If the French courts applied the U.S. law concept of authorship, then John Huston would not have been ruled the "author," and accordingly, he and his heirs would lack any moral rights. If, however, the French courts applied the French concept of authorship, then John Huston's status as an "author" would have been recognized; accordingly, he and his heirs would have been the beneficiary of the moral right of integrity. Thus, first and foremost the Huston affair presented an international conflicts of laws controversy.
Intellectual Property Law | International Law | Law
Jane C. Ginsburg & Pierre Sirinelli,
Authors and Exploitations in International Private Law: The French Supreme Court and the Huston Film Colorization Controversy,
Colum.-VLA J. L. & Arts
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/3725