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Attorneys Snarl Over Rights to Rin Tin Tin

LOS ANGELES (CN) - A judge will decide who owns Rin Tin Tin's trademarks after attorneys on Tuesday argued for a dog breeder and a dog food company on one side, and a former Hollywood stuntman on the other.

In an April 2013 lawsuit , retired stuntman Max Kleven and Rin Inc. claimed to hold exclusive intellectual property rights for Rin Tin Tin and associated film and television rights.

They accused dog breeder Daphne Hereford, Texas-based Rin Tin Tin Inc., and pet supply company Belleair Trading International of "hijacking" the Rin Tin Tin mark after Hereford allegedly made unlawful trademark registrations to sell clothing, dog accessories, children's books and other products.

The $5 million lawsuit for copyright infringement, unfair competition, trademark infringement and other counts alleged that Hereford had claimed ownership of certain Rin Tin Tin marks based on breeding from a German shepherd dog that "may have been a descendant of the dog Rin Tin Tin."

The original Rin Tin Tin died in 1932 and was replaced by two successor dogs, Rin Tin Tin Jr. and Rin Tin Tin III.

Hereford claims she breeds dogs descended from the canine movie star who appeared in more than 27 movies in Tinseltown. She owns a Rin Tin Tin museum with 800 pieces of memorabilia in Crockett, Texas.

"Defendants hold a false and misguided belief that because they purchased puppies purportedly sired by Rin Tin Tin IV, which may not even be related by blood to the original Rin Tin Tin, that defendants have somehow also acquired an ownership or custodial interest in the legacy of the character Rin Tin Tin," the lawsuit states.

"That - and that alone - is the sum total of the 'basis' or defendants' hijacking of this icon of American television, film and culture," according to the 54-page complaint.

In his lawsuit, Kleven said he owned the copyrights and trademarks to the "fictional" Rin Tin Tin created by the German Shepherd's owner, Lt. Lee Duncan, who found the dog among a litter of puppies while serving in France during World War I.

After the war, Duncan took the dog to the United States and wrote a screenplay "Where North Begins" that starred Rin Tin Tin and reportedly helped save Warner Bros. from going under. Duncan later paired up with producer Herbert Leonard to produce the 1950s television show "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin."

After Duncan died his wife handed over all the rights to Leonard. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, and assigned his rights and trademarks to Rin Tin Tin to Kleven, a friend and stuntman who had appeared in "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin."

With U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte presiding on Tuesday, Belleair Trading International's Dwight Erickson, 66, was questioned by Kleven's attorney Kirk M. Hallam.

The attorney tried to make clear that Belleair had sold dog food and treats by exploiting the fictional Rin Tin Tin character.

Erickson confirmed during the hearing that he had first become interested in the Rin Tin Tin character after reading Susan Orlean's nonfiction bestseller "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend."

"It occurred to me that the colorful history of this lucky and talented dog might provide an attractive back-story to a brand of high-quality dog foods," he said in a sworn declaration for the case.

In that declaration, Erickson said he contacted Hereford after seeing her website online and inquired about the marks, ultimately entering into a merchandising deal.

After showing the court exhibits that featured copy on Belleair's dog treat packaging, Hallam asked: "You want buyers or potential buyers of your Rin Tin Tin dog treats to know that Rin Tin Tin starred in the television series called 'The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,' correct?"

"I wanted them to know of the legacy that we've outlined in this narrative," Erickson said. "Part of that is the television series that appeared during that period."

Later Tuesday morning, defendants' attorney Lora M. Friedemann cross-examined former attorney James P. Tierney, who had represented Leonard in his ongoing litigation with Hereford that created three lawsuits

At one point, Friedemann asserted that a 2006 settlement between Leonard and Hereford gave Hereford the right to use the mark.

"That settlement consents to then to Ms. Hereford's continued use of the Rin Tin Tin mark," Friedemann said to Tierney.

"No it doesn't," Tierney replied.

The attorneys told Courthouse News that the bench trial would be finished by the end of the day.

Judge Birotte is expected to rule after the parties submit final briefs.

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