This article is written by Yaiphabi Rajkumari. This article has been edited by Dipshi Swara (Senior Associate, Lawsikho).
The movies involved; ‘ A fistful of dollars’ and ‘Rango’ (animated movie), are from a different period and different genre but due to a scene which lasted about one and half minutes the producers of A Fistful of Dollars filed a copyright infringement case against Rango. This case focuses on the copyright infringement of a fictional character, A Fistful of dollars famous character called ‘The man with no name’. It was alleged by the producers of the film that Rango brought a character called ‘Spirit of the West’ which had a high resemblance with ‘The man with no name’. The resemblance between the characters was very close in terms of how they dressed( smoking a cigar, wearing the same poncho and same cowboy hat) but the role was different and the duration of the character in Rango was too brief. Also, the character from Rango was an elderly version compared to the character the “Man with no Name” who was shown as young and youthful. The character “Man with no Name” in the Dollar trilogy was the main protagonist whereas the character from Rango “Spirit of the West” was temporary and had less than two minutes of screen time. Rango claimed that the character was taken in reference to the actor Clint Eastwood and not ‘The man with no name’ character and that the character “Spirit of the West” was to pay tribute to the actor. Considering all the arguments and facts of the case the court gave decision in favor of Ragon, the judgment will be discussed in this article
A fistful of dollar
A Fistful of Dollars is a cult Italian film series directed by Sergio Leone, it is the first chapter under the Dollar Trilogy which was released in 1964, the trilogy includes “For a Few Dollars More” which was released in 1965 as the 2nd chapter and last “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” which was released on 1966. This trilogy was considered as the masterpiece of the “Spaghetti Western” genre. This trilogy focused on the anti-hero character of ‘The man with no name’ played by young Clint Eastwood, smoking a cigar and wearing the same poncho and cowboy hat for all the films in the trilogy. He is a nameless gunman who breaks into a small border town, upsetting the balance of the warring factions within the community, inspired by a high ideal of justice.
Rango was released in 2011. It was an animated western comedy film and was directed by Gore Verbinski. The storyline of the film was based on a chameleon who dreamt of being an actor but accidentally winds up in the town of Dirt, a lawless outpost in the Wild West populated by the desert’s most wily and whimsical creatures, and Rango ends up being a local sheriff and becomes a real hero. This film won the Best Animated Feature at the 84th Academy Awards.
Link between A Fistful and Rango
Rango contained a number of references from Western and other films. In a particular scene of the film in Rango, Rango meets the Spirit of the West who is a meta cinema character that gave direction and encouragement to Rango, the character in the movie appearing resembles an elderly Clint Eastwood, wearing the same poncho and the cowboy hat and smoking a cigar just like in the ‘The man with no name’ from the Dollar trilogy. The producers of the film ‘A Fistful of Dollar’ filed a case against the Italian distributor of Rango in the Court of Rome, claiming that the character of the ‘Spirit of the West’ infringed copyright in the character from ‘The man with no name’. Other than the scene and the wild west setting there is almost no relation between the two films.
Decision of the court
The Court of Rome gave the decision that shows the genuine passion of the Seventh Art, and dismissed the claim, on the basis of the following arguments:
( You can read the judgment here)
- The context
The context of the film is totally different, A Fistful of dollars is a dramatic movie based on a growing narrative tension whereas Rango is a “satirical and semi-serious […] seemingly intended mainly for children”;
- The reference
According to the Court, the reference of the character in the Spirit of the West was the actor Clint Eastwood, not ‘Man with no Name’. This would be confirmed by the strong resemblance of the actor, who is depicted as much older with white hair than the character of ‘The man with no name’. The character is depicted as an elderly gentleman who drives a golf caddy, with a golf bag full of Academy Award not a young gunslinger as the character from the Dollar trilogy
- Role of the character
The character in this dollar trilogy is the main protagonist of the Spaghetti Western, whereas, in the film Rango, the Character Spirit of the West plays a temporary limited role not even lasting two minutes and has a clear purpose “of paying a clear tribute to the main actor of the spaghetti western saga and to his director Sergio Leone”. Because of this intention, the decision refers expressly to the fair use doctrine, “which assesses whether the copyright was infringed or not and also the extent of the use of the allegedly plagiarized work since it is not possible to assume the existence of a “commercially harmless” plagiarism”; Semantic gap (“ Scarto Semantico”)
In order to be protected by copyright as a creative work under the Italian case law a character “must be original and immediately recognizable even if the same character is or is placed in a different context” therefore, it must show a “semantic gap” compared to the “previous archetypes”.
These characters have been recognized by the Italian courts, such as the following:
- Gabibbo (Italian Supreme Court, judgements No. 14635/2018 and No. 503/2017);
- Bing Bunny (Court of Rome, 10 July 2020);
- Zorro (Italian Supreme Court, judgment No. 1599, 7 October 2016);
- Polly il Pollo (Court of Milan, 20 March 2013);
- Mirmo (Court of Milan, 17 March 2006);
- Louie Mouse alias Topo Gigio (Court of Verona, 17 August 1993);
- Betty Boop, now in the public domain (Court of Milan, 28 September 1992);
- Mickey Mouse (Court of Milan, 28 June 1992);
- Pink Panther alias Pantera Rosa (Court of Turin, 27 March 1990).
However, according to the Court, the Man with no Name does not show such a semantic gap as it represents “the stereotype of the negative, ambiguous, foreign, double-dealing, outlaw hero” that “dates back to the beginnings of occidental literature with the Odyssey“ and the court refer to the fact that “A Fistful of Dollars” is a reinterpretation in a Western way of Akira Kurosawa’s Rōnin (1960) and Yōjinbō (1961). The court recalled that the producers of Kurosawa did bring an action against the current plaintiff, but the lawsuit was settled out-of-court.
The court held that the case could not fall under the exception of parody and rejected the argument by the defendant on the alleged parody of the Dollars trilogy. The decision further stresses the lawfulness of the “de minimis” use carried out by “Rango”, considering that Rango is not a desecrating or in any case ‘reworking’ function with purposes different from those of the original work.
Conclusion & analysis
Under the Italian copyright act, fictional characters are protected but for this case, the character Man with no Name does not fulfill the criteria or the requirements for copyright protection, since it represents an archetype already known both in literature and movies. The court’s decision regarding this case was expressly referred to in the doctrine of US fair use in deciding under Italian law. It is unusual for an Italian court to refer to a foreign law but it is not certainly the first time that an Italian court refers expressly to the doctrine of US fair use in deciding a dispute under Italian law. It can be concluded that in this case, the character Spirit of the West does not infringe copyright as it has a different role and it does not show a semantic gap, and also the character was only highlighted for One and a half minutes. The character “Spirit of the West ” resembles the elderly version of the character the “Man with no Name”. The reference was not made from the “Man with no Name” character but rather the actor, the intention was to pay tribute to the actor Clint Eastwood and as there was no existence of a semantic gap, the court decided to give the decision in favor of Rango.
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