The Ray Bradbury novel “Fahrenheit 451” has enjoyed a decades-long life in popular culture in a variety of forms, but according to long-established copyright law, filmmaker Michael Moore was well within his legal rights to borrow part of that book's title for his record-shattering documentary.
Moore's appropriation of part of the Bradbury title isn't actionable in American courts, except, maybe, the court of public opinion.
“Fahrenheit 451,” Bradbury's celebrated novel of a dystopian society in which a special cadre of firemen burn books as a means of controlling the population's access to information, was first published in 1953; in the 50 years since, it's sold more than 5 million copies and undergone the changes of any successful pop-cultural creation.
The book led to a 1966 film by the late director Francois Truffaut, starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie.
This led to theatrical productions, including a Los Angeles stage version of “Fahrenheit 451” in 1979; a British stage production was mounted last September.
For Bradbury, author of more than 30 books including “The Martian Chronicles” and “The Illustrated Man,” the “Fahrenheit” life goes on. He told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation earlier in June that a new edition of the novel is to be released later this summer, and that a new film version is being planned.
New film in the works?
The movies.com Web site reports that Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Majestic”) is reportedly set to direct. Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Charlize Theron and Brad Pitt are some of the names long been rumored to be attached to a new “451.”
All of which would seem to give Bradbury squatters' rights over the title, or any variations thereon.
Not according to American copyright law. Names are not protected by copyright law, although some names may be protected under trademark law.
“Even if a name, title, or short phrase is novel or distinctive or if it lends itself to a play on words, it cannot be protected by copyright,” the U.S. Copyright Office states on its Web site.
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” raked in $23.9 million in its first weekend, a record debut for a documentary. As a creative success in its own right, can Moore's film rebuff Bradbury's claims outright?
Copyright-law specialist's view
“‘Fahrenheit 451’ is a well-known book title, and as such can receive some protection under the trademark law,” said Jessica Litman, a law professor at Wayne State University and an expert on copyright law.
“From the news accounts that I've read, it seems to me that Bradbury is arguing that Moore's use of a similar title might cause consumers to believe that Bradbury is associated with Moore's film in some way, or might harm the distinctiveness of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by blurring or tarnishing it,” she said.
“Since the book remains in print, and Bradbury has some hope that a new film version will be made in the foreseeable future, he may be concerned that hoopla about Moore's film will harm the market for his book, or for a remake of the movie based on his book,” said Litman, author of “Digital Copyright,” a 2001 book on the effect of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act on consumers.
“Michael Moore's film has received a slew of publicity detailing his making of the film,” Litman said. “There seems to be no danger that members of the public will buy tickets to it because of a misapprehension that Bradbury has some affiliation with the film.
“Besides, the courts tend to be reluctant — for First Amendment reasons — to require filmmakers to change the titles of their movies when they've chosen the title for expressive rather than purely commercial reasons,” Litman said.
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