Warner Bros. Wins Legal Decision Over Control Of 'Wizard Of Oz' Film Characters; What Does This Mean For 'Oz: The Great And Powerful'?

The small news for Sam Raimi's new Wizard of Oz film Oz: The Great and Powerful is that Abigail Spencer has been cast as "a young woman who is a willing subject of Oz's magic tricks which the erstwhile magician is performing in Kansas." The magician being the character played by James Franco, whose balloon eventually is blown off course, landing him in Oz, where he becomes the Wizard we know from the classic film.

But there is a bigger Oz story in play today, as today a ruling in the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals gave Warner Bros. quite a few powers over the characters depicted in The Wizard of Oz. This court decision could have serious ramifications going forward for any studio that seeks to make a film that will capitalize in some measure on an existing film owned by another company.

At issue in the court decision were rights to the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz, rights to which are owned by Warners, and the position of the characters in or out of the public domain, given that they are based on a 110-year old book.

The root of the issue here is a lawsuit brought by WB against nostalgia merchant AVELA, which several years ago bought out of copyright promo items for The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and some Tom & Jerry shorts, then went on to use images from those old promo materials on new merchandise.

While a few different fine points came out of this particular decision — the court ruled that some of AVELA's actions were defensible, based on the lack of old copyright — THR parses the most important bit, saying, "in essence, the panel of justices finds that the features of film characters can be copyrighted even if these characters were based on prior work."

Here's the bit from the decision:

We agree with the district court's conclusion that Dorothy, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind, and Tom and Jerry each exhibit "consistent, widely identifiable traits" in the films that are sufficiently distinctive to merit character protection under the respective film copyrights....Put more simply, there is no evidence that one would be able to visualize the distinctive details of, for example, Clark Gable's performance before watching the movie Gone with the Wind, even if one had read the book beforehand. At the very least, the scope of the film copyrights covers all visual depictions of the film characters at issue, except for any aspects of the characters that were injected into the public domain by the publicity materials.

(THR bolded the relevant bit there, and I preserved the bold.)

In other words, WB now seems to own very specific film depictions of characters in The Wizard of Oz, and could therefore lay claim to similar depictions created at other studios. Let's say... Disney and Oz: The Great and Powerful, for example. No doubt this is going to be the beginning of many legal sparring matches, and I'm not well enough versed in legalese to guess how this could impact the various Oz films that are in development right now. Lawyers, speak up below!