U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson in Los Angeles has granted Warren Beatty’s motion for summary judgment, finding the actor had fulfilled an agreement with defendant Tribune Media Services and therefore retained rights to Dick Tracy, the long-running comic strip legend. Hard-hitting, fast-shooting and super sharp, the detective was created by Chester Gould and debuted as the protagonist of a cartoon strip on Oct. 4, 1931, in the now-defunct Detroit Mirror.
The Tracy ruling came down “just three months after the judge overseeing Tribune’s Chapter 11 proceedings in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court [in Delaware] modified the automatic stay to allow Beatty’s suit in the Central District of California to go forward,” wrote Melissa Lipman of Law 360.
Beatty and Tribune Media agreed in 1985 that he would get movie, television and other rights to Dick Tracy, with those reverting back to the once-mighty and now bankrupt media company in two instances: (1) if Tribune provided notice to Beatty, and (2) if Beatty did not begin principal photography on a movie or “television series or special” using the Dick Tracy character within two years of receiving such notice.
Beatty went on to star in the wildly popular Disney hit as the sqaure-jawed detective and he subsequently contracted with that company to make a TV show starring ice skating champion Nancy Kerrigan dancing with various characters, including Dick Tracy. Then “in 2005, Tribune filed suit demanding the court find [that] the Dick Tracy rights had reverted to it,” wrote Jonathan Zavin of Loeb & Loeb’s in his blog, IP/Entertainment Law Weekly. The courts dismissed the Tribune complaint on grounds that it had failed to provide due notice to Beatty of its intention to re-acquire the rights in accord with their agreement.
Tribune then went on to notify Beatty it intended to reacquire rights to the cartoon icon. To avoid the rights recapture and in compliance with the agreement, Beatty went on to film a TV program that Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel was supposed to broadcast within two years of his receiving the Tribune notice. That TV show was planned as part of a Dick Tracy marathon, but never was aired.
Tribune complained the 30-minute TCM show did not qualify as a “television special” because it was not intended for broadcast on a free commercial network and it was less than two hours long. Tribune asserted that Beatty had acted in bad faith, making the TV show solely to retain his rights in Dick Tracy, though the court later would note, “[t]hat may very well be true; no more was required. . . . It is not an act of bad faith for a party to act in conformity with rights which have been provided to him under the terms of the agreement.”
Pregerson, in his opinion, wrote that, under California law, the court’s role in this case was to determine the “intention of the parties as expressed in the contract.” He then said, emphatically, that his court could not “create for the parties a contract they did not make,” and that the court “[could not] insert language that one party now wishes were there.”