This guest post was contributed by Anne M. Lum, a student in Southwestern Law School’s SCALE program who also is now taking the Entertainment Law and Emerging Web course.

Whose ears don’t prick up at the eerie whistling in his iconic composition for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (click on image above)? Who doesn’t feel a plaintive twinge on hearing the mournful harmonica solo in the theme he wrote for Once Upon a Time in the West? And who doesn’t feel a heart tug at the sonorous line of his tune Gabriel’s Oboe for The Mission?

Hollywood and Rome may revere and honor Ennio Morricone as one the planet’s leading, living musical geniuses. But in the eyes of the law—specifically in a recent ruling by a federal judge in New York—the legendary Oscar- and Emmy-winning composer, conductor, and musician is still a sort of working stiff.

After reviewing Italian copyright law,  U.S. District Judge Katherine  B. Forrest granted summary judgment to Bixio Music Group, tossing Morricone’s lawsuit to reclaim the copyright to his scores for Cosi Come Se (1978, Stay as You Are), Il Giocattolo (1979, A Dangerous Toy) and Un Sacco Bello (1980, Fun is Beautiful).

Works for hire

Morricone had argued that under the Copyright Act of 1976, the rights to the tunes for this trio of Italian movies should have been terminated in 2012. But Bixio refused relinquish rights to the scores, arguing that Morricone at the time had been a pen for pay, and “works made for hire” are not subject to termination. (A tip of the hat to the Hollywood Reporter Esq. for posting online Forrest’s ruling).

Forrest, in her decision, had to delve into the controlling Italian law, finding differences in how Italy and the United States define works made for hire. Each side presented their own experts, and the case turned, in part, the judge’s ruling shows, on how Italians in the film and music business understand the legal meaning and rights of “commissioned” works—and who owns them in the end.

Forrest found that, in legal terms, an Italian “commissioned” work is a corollary to an American “work for hire.” And, therefore, under 17 U.S.C. 203, Morricone cannot be granted a termination of the assignment of his copyright.

Still, the maestro, as always, may be giving the downbeat for the overture to what some analysts see as scores of composers and other creatives waltzing into to the courts seeking to recapture copyrights to movies from the 1970s and 1980s, a robust period of film-making with numerous now familiar musical works and dialogues. THR Esq. points out that such litigation is at play now with This Is Spinal Tap and Friday the 13th.

As for Morricone, he remains a giant musical force, winning ever more honors and selling out performances of his work, especially in a hugely successful European concert tour. Fans around the world clearly are saying, Bravo, signore, may you reap more than a few dollars more.