Judge Keeps Fight Over ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ Reboot in Federal Court

Attorneys for author Truman Capote’s trust want a state court to resolve what they frame as a contract dispute — but they’ve already claimed copyright infringement in federal court.

A scene from the 1961 Paramount film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” based on the novella by famed American writer Truman Capote.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge on Friday refused to send a legal battle over a “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” remake back to state court, despite pleas by attorneys for writer Truman Capote’s trust that they mistakenly alleged copyright infringement.

Paramount Pictures has designs on producing a feature film or television series remake of “Breakfast At Tiffany’s,” the 1961 classic starring Audrey Hepburn, and has a screenplay ready for the reboot.

The film was based on the novella of the same name, which Capote wrote in 1958. After his death, domestic property rights to the novella transferred from Paramount to the Truman Capote Literary Trust, a charity Capote established before his death.

In 1991, the charitable trust entered into a settlement with Paramount granting certain rights for an eventual remake of the classic film. 

The controversy in the current legal battle arises from the parties’ differing interpretations of the 1991 agreement.

Paramount claims the agreement granted it full rights to the novella and allows the studio to produce a “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” remake at any time without obligation to do so.

Attorneys for Alan Schwartz, trustee of Capote’s charity, claim the parties agreed the reboot must be produced within a certain time. If Paramount failed to do so, they argue, the rights revert back to the trust.

Schwartz sued the Hollywood film studio in Los Angeles Superior Court last November, claiming the trust is the sole owner of all motion picture rights to the novella and that Paramount ceded its rights by failing to produce a film within the time frame of the contract.

The trust has received seven-figure offers for a television series remake of the novella, the lawsuit said, adding that Paramount executives are allegedly also hip to the idea and hope to pitch a series to a streaming platform.

Paramount convinced a state court judge to remove the matter to the Central District of California after successfully arguing Schwartz’s complaint contains a copyright infringement allegation under the federal Copyright Act.

The allegation, along with Schwartz’s request that a federal judge declare the new Paramount screenplay an infringing “derivative work” of the Capote classic, mean federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction, attorneys for the studio argued.

With the lawsuit removed to federal court, attorneys for Schwartz filed a motion to send the case back to state court, arguing the central claim is a matter of contractual law, not copyright infringement.

In a virtual hearing Friday, Edwin F. McPherson, an attorney for Schwartz, said the word “derivative” was mistakenly inserted into the complaint and that the trust isn’t claiming copyright infringement.

“There’s no dispute here as to whether it’s a derivative work. They said we’re making a screenplay of your novella,” McPherson told U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. “We can amend tomorrow and take jurisdiction away. Plaintiff owning a copyright is a contract question.”

McPherson said the complaint centers on a breach of contract allegation, not a copyright infringement claim, and that the court should not be distracted by other issues.

Blumenfeld asked McPherson whether the court needs to determine if the screenplay is indeed a movie script or if it’s substantially similar to the novella.

McPherson said the case centers on the allegation that Paramount breached the license agreement by failing to produce a reboot on time.

“We don’t claim any infringement,” McPherson said.

Blumenfeld said he must deal with what is alleged in the complaint and that the 1991 agreement doesn’t provide the court with the framework to determine whether Paramount’s movie script is a derivative work.

“Plaintiff is the master of the complaint,” Blumenfeld told McPherson. “You did elect to ask for a declaration that the screenplay is a derivative work.”

Blumenfeld issued an oral tentative ruling denying Schwartz’s motion to remand the matter.

David Grossman of Loeb and Loeb, an attorney for Paramount, told Blumenfeld he agreed with his reasoning and that under plaintiff’s complaint the court should apply the substantial similarity test to determine if the screenplay is a derivative infringing work.

In court papers opposing the remand motion, attorneys for Paramount explained further why the court should deny Schwartz’s request.

“It is axiomatic that where a claim requires ‘construction’ or ‘an interpretation’ of the Copyright Act, that claim ‘arises under’ the Copyright Act for purposes of federal subject matter jurisdiction,” the brief states. “Here, plaintiff’s own allegations establish that its purported interpretation of the 1991 agreement requires the court to construe and analyze copyright law.”

Blumenfield told the parties he would adopt his tentative ruling as his final order.

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