Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Renoir Infringement Suit

The Arizona Republic reports on a copyright infringement lawsuit involving some Renoir sculptures that went to trial today to determine the extent of damages; liability was decided on summary judgment earlier this year.

The background to the lawsuit is in this report from a year ago. The defendants in the case are Rima Fine Art in Scottsdale and its individual owners, as well as Jean-Emmanuel Renoir, Renoir's great-grandson, who lent his name to the gallery's plans "to sell hundreds of thousands of Pierre-Auguste Renoir sculptures, merchandised as everything from bedding and bird feeders to dolls, diamonds and dog leashes." The lawsuit was brought by the Societe Civile Succession Richard Guino, a French trust. Renoir worked with artist Richard Guino from 1913 to 1918, when, in his 70s and hindered by arthritis, he began to make sculpture. At least 17 works resulted, initially signed only by Renoir, who died in 1919. Guino died in 1973. His family then sued the Renoir estate, and in 1982 the family was awarded co-authorship of the works by the French courts. Profits have since been divided between the two families, and the original plasters "placed in a neutral domain, the Susse Foundry in Paris."

The current case turns on a hypertechnical question of copyright law -- whether publishing a pre-1978 work in a foreign country without a copyright notice placed the work in the public domain in the U.S. The gallery's lawyer is quoted as saying "[b]asically what [the District Court Judge] said was that he believed we were correct, but he was bound by the 9th Circuit" -- and, for once, that doesn't appear to be mere spin from the losing side. The District Court said that it would follow the 9th Circuit's decision in Twin Books Corp. v. Walt Disney Co. (83 F.3d 1162 (1996)), which held that the foreign publication without notice did not cause the work to enter the public domain (hence the finding of infringement here), but made it very clear that it was doing so against its better judgment.

The District Court had suggested that an interlocutory appeal might be appropriate given the circumstances. The 9th Circuit apparently turned it down, but I'm sure the case will be back before it pretty soon.