We’re pretty high on Lee Daniels’s (The Paperboy, Precious) latest film, The Butler. But that very elegantly understated title, which refers to the occupation of the lead character, played by Forest Whitaker, may not be the title much longer. Based on their possession of of a 1916 silent short film by the same name, Warner Bros. has moved to block The Weinstein Company from using the title. Yes, this but six weeks from The Butler‘s (or whatever it ends up being called) release, after posters and trailers and the beginning of a marketing campaign for the film have already been rolled out.
Warner Bros.’ motion was upheld last night by an MPAA arbitrator who ruled that the word “butler” would not be allowed to appear in any further marketing for the Daniels film, and that the movie itself must be retitled. Since then, both The Weinstein Company and Daniels have been maneuvering furiously on a number of fronts to try to have the decision overridden. On the legal front, Weinstein and co. are arguing that since the short film has not been exhibited or promoted in nearly 100 years, and since there is little chance of confusing an obscure silent short with a modern feature, copyright protection should not be extended. Furthermore, they’re reportedly contending that A) Warner Bros. has no interest in protecting the copyright and is instead trying to extort concessions from The Weinstein Company in exchange for clearance on the title, and B) that Warner and the MPAA are colluding in a breach of anti-trust laws. Meanwhile, Daniels is appealing directly to the Warner CEO Kevin Tsujihara on the basis that blocking the title usage would do irreparable harm to a culturally significant piece of cinema that is on the cutting edge of an artistic movement exploring the black experience in American history. Full details on the whole story can be found on Deadline.
The title fight calls back into question some of the obscurities of American copyright law, questions which have been more frequently raised in recent years by fair use lawsuits on internet content. Though the fight over The Butler title is decidedly old-school, it’s also reflective of a system of law that’s struggling to catch up to the explosion of modern media realities. Protection of intellectual property is essential, but at what point is it taken too far?
The Butler, or whatever it ends up being called, premiers August 16. It was written by Danny Strong, directed by Lee Daniels, and stars an enormous ensemble cast, including Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, and Cuba Gooding, Jr.