Famed Composer Morricone Gets New Shot at Royalties

Ennio Morricone (2015) in der Festhalle Frankfurt. (Image by Sven-Sebastian Sajak, via Wikipedia)

MANHATTAN (CN) – The Italian composer Ennio Morricone can pursue “a few dollars more” following a Second Circuit reversal Wednesday about his rights to the scores of six spaghetti-western films produced in late 1970s and early 1980s.

Responsible for creating some of the most lush and iconic film scores in the history of cinema, the 90-year-old Morricone persuaded an appellate panel in Manhattan today that the scores he produced for Italian music publisher Bixio were not “works made for hire” under either Italian law or U.S. law.

The Second Circuit’s determination allows Morricone to terminate the assignment of the copyrights to Bixio after 35 years, reversing a previous order of summary judgment.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bixio contracted Morricone to compose scores for six films, entering into identical written agreements for the maestro to compose the original musical score of each film, arrange the music and conduct an orchestra that would play the film’s musical score.

The deal included for Morricone: a onetime upfront payment of 3 million Italian lire; limited ongoing royalties from the use of the score with the film and separate from the film; a credit in the film; and 300 vinyl LPs of the score.  

Bixio acted as a middleman that brokered Morricone’s scores to third-party filmmakers seeking music for their existing films.

The Italian films at issue include 1978’s “Cosi Comei Sei”, internationally released as “Stay as You Are”; 1979’s “Il giocattolo”, internationally released as “A Dangerous Toy”; and 1980’s “Un sacco bello,” internationally released as “Fun Is Beautiful.”

Morricone Music served Bixio in 2012 with a notice terminating the assignment of its U.S. copyrights in the scores under U.S. copyright law, which allows copyright owners to terminate a contractual assignment after 35 years.

U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest sided with Bixio at summary judgment in 2017, however, ruling that the six scores were specifically commissioned and constituted works for hire under Italian law, makin Bixio the owner of the copyrights.

U.S. Circuit Judge Dennis Jacobs penned Wednesday’s reversal.

“Thirty‐five years have elapsed; accordingly, Morricone Music is within its rights to terminate unless the works are ‘made for hire,’” the ruling states. “Mr. Morricone was not a Bixio employee; and none of the contracts specify that the scores shall be considered ‘works made for hire.’ Accordingly, by its literal terms, the exception does not apply under U.S. law.”

In a footnote, Jacobs also observed that “the contracts in this case … granted Mr. Morricone the right to collect royalties from the use of the scores, both with the movie and separately.”

“While this does not foreclose the possibility that the works are ‘made for hire,’ we think that that payment structure tends to suggest that the parties did not intend Mr. Morricone to be stripped of all his rights in the scores,” Jacobs added.

U.S. Circuit Judges Amalya Kearse and Peter Hall concurred.

Morricone is perhaps most widely recognized for his scores to Western movies made by Italian director Sergio Leone, including the celebrated “Man With No Name” trilogy of films starring American actor Clint Eastwood: “A Fistful of Dollars” in 1964, “For a Few Dollars More” in 1965 and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” in 1966.

Morricone won his first Oscar in 2016 at age 87, after five previous nominations earlier in his career, taking the award for Best Original Soundtrack for the Quentin Tarrantino film “The Hateful Eight.” 

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