California District Court Grants Motion to Compel Arbitration in Dispute Involving Film Adaptation of Hogan's Heroes
Laura McQuade | Bloomberg Law
The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted defendants’ motion to compel arbitration in a dispute with plaintiffs over the right to produce a motion picture based on the television series Hogan’s Heroes.
The Parties’ Dispute Relating to Hogan’s Heroes
Defendants Albert Ruddy and Bernard Fein wrote the literary work, The Heroes, in 1963. In 1964, Bing Crosby Productions, LLC (“BCP”) purchased The Heroes pursuant to a letter agreement by which Ruddy and Fein assigned “all of their right, title, and interest” to the work (the “Assignment Agreement”). Rysher at 3. BCP subsequently developed the television series, Hogan’s Heroes, based on the work.
On the same day that the writers executed the Assignment Agreement, they also entered into an employment agreement with BCP by which the writers would assist with the writing and revision of The Heroes. Shortly thereafter, the writers entered into a second employment agreement with BCP by which the writers would assist with the writing and revision of a related pilot script entitled The Informer. Both employment agreements expressly incorporated the terms of the 1960 Writer’s Guild of America Television Film Minimum Basic Agreement (the “Independent Agreement”), a collective bargaining agreement to which both BCP and defendant Writers Guild of America, West, Inc. (“WGA”) were parties.
On October 21, 2011, WGA served a request for arbitration on plaintiffs Rysher Entertainment, Inc., Qualia Capital, LLC, and BCP, seeking a declaration that, pursuant to the terms of the Independent Agreement, the writers held so-called “separated rights” in Hogan’s Heroes. Separated rights are contractual rights in literary material that may be held by a writer even where a producer owns the copyright. In response, plaintiffs filed the instant action against WGA, Ruddy, and the heir to Fein’s estate, seeking a declaration that: (1) the rights conferred by the Assignment Agreement were not subject to arbitration; (2) BCP was the owner of The Heroes and any derivative works (including the Hogan’s Heroes television series); and (3) defendants had waived any arbitrable claims under the Independent Agreement by failing to follow certain procedural requirements. Defendants, in turn, filed this motion to compel arbitration.
Court Grants Motion to Compel Arbitration
Noting that federal law favors arbitration of private labor disputes, the court explained that its role here was limited to determining: (1) whether a valid arbitration exists; and (2) whether that agreement encompasses this dispute. Because the first question was uncontested, the court turned to the second question of whether the writers had acquired separated rights in Hogan’s Heroes pursuant to the Independent Agreement. Plaintiffs claimed that this dispute was not subject to arbitration because the Assignment Agreement, unlike the employment agreements, did not contain an arbitration clause, nor did it reference the Independent Agreement. WGA conceded that BCP owned the copyright in The Heroes pursuant to the Assignment Agreement, but argued that the writers acquired separated rights to the film adaptation pursuant to Article XX of the Independent Agreement.
According to the court, because the resolution of this issue required, at least in part, an interpretation of the Independent Agreement, the dispute fell “squarely” within that agreement’s arbitration clause, which encompassed “[a]ny difference between the Union and the Producer concerning the interpretation of any of the terms of this Agreement and its application and effect as determined by such interpretation.” Rysher at 8-9. The fact that the dispute may also require consideration of the Assignment Agreement did not render the dispute nonarbitrable.
The court explained that plaintiffs’ remaining arguments all went to the merits of their claim, not to the arbitrability of the dispute. Similarly, the court concluded that plaintiffs’ argument that defendants had procedurally waived arbitration was best left for the arbitrator to decide. Finally, the court reasoned that to the extent that plaintiffs would argue that this matter should be stayed as to certain parties pending the arbitration, it would not exercise its discretion to do so, due to the interrelatedness of the parties and their claims. The court thus granted defendant WGA’s motion to compel arbitration.
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