Ruling in what it called an “unusually complex case” that required multiple briefs and two oral argument sessions, Div. Seven agreed with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Conrad Aragon that the unambiguous language of the contract supported Columbia Pictures’ argument that Wagner had no rights in the films.
Columbia purchased all of the assets of Spelling-Goldberg Productions, Inc. in 1982. Those assets included rights under a contract that Wagner and his wife, Natalie Wood, who died in 1981, had signed with Spelling-Goldberg years earlier.
The primary purpose of the agreement was to secure the couple’s services for a television movie that Spelling-Goldberg was preparing to produce. The contract, however, also included a provision under which Wagner and Wood would join Spelling-Goldberg in submitting ideas to ABC for a television series for the 1974-75 season.
If ABC agreed to produce a series pilot based on one of those ideas, Wagner and Wood were to receive one-half the net profits derived from the “exploitation of all ancillary, music and subsidiary rights...in connection with” the “right to exhibit photoplays of the series.”
One of the concepts was for a series called “Harry’s Angels,” later renamed “Charlie’s Angels.” The series ran for five years.
During the mid-1990’s, Columbia made a deal with the heirs of the show’s writers to obtain the rights to make one or more films based on the series. The films were released in 2000 and 2003.
After Columbia rejected Wagner’s claim that he and his family trusts, which had succeeded to Wood’s rights after her death, were entitled to half the company’s profits under the “subsidiary rights” provision of the old agreement, Wagner sued, but Aragon ruled that no triable issue existed and granted summary adjudication on the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim.
The parties then stipulated that the rejection of that claim effectively resolved Wagner’s claims for declaratory relief and an accounting, and judgment was entered for Columbia.
Justice Earl Johnson Jr., writing for the appellate court, explained that under copyright law, the pilot script was a “work[ ] made for hire,” giving Spelling-Goldberg absolute rights to exploit it in other media, except as otherwise provided by contract.
A provision of the writers’ contract with Spelling-Goldberg, however, incorporated a collective bargaining agreement between the producers and the Writer’s Guild. Under the “separated rights” provision of that agreement, Johnson explained, the writers retained the right to exploit the material for certain purposes, including making a motion picture.
That right was subject to a qualification, the justice added. If the writers had offered the film rights for sale within five years, the producer would have had a right of first refusal.
Had that occurred, Johnson explained, Wagner would have had a possible claim based on the “subsidiary rights” language. But because Columbia’s predecessor’s contract with the writers was completely independent of the company’s negotiations with their heirs—who could have sold the film rights to anyone—more than a decade later, the film rights were not ancillary to the television series, the justice wrote.
Attorneys on appeal were Samuel R. Pryor, Sally S. Liu and Matthew R. Belloni of Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan for Wagner and Martin D. Katz, Lisa N. Stutz and Jean-Paul Jassy of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton for Columbia.
The case is Wagner v. Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., B184523.