Sony Pictures, in its high-stakes attempt to kidnap British superspy James Bond from his 35-year-old home at MGM’s United Artists, has come forth with startling claims of ownership of the 007 movie franchise — and is suing MGM for a cut of the profits generated from the 18-film action series.
Legal documents recently filed in U.S. district court by Sony and its attorneys outline a strategy based on complex international copyright laws to buttress their right to go forward with their nascent Bond movie franchise.
SPE is claiming it has the legal right to the 007 franchise through its association with producer Kevin McClory, whose co-ownership of the Bond character stems from collaborations with Bond author Ian Fleming.
Sony suggests in its claim that the cinematic Bond character is not only separate from the literary secret agent, but is in fact partly McClory’s creation, and therefore co-owned by him.
And because of his ownership of the Bond character, Sony said, McClory is owed some portion of the estimated $3 billion the franchise has generated.
According to the documents, Fleming worked with McClory and scriptwriter Jack Whittingham through 1959 and 1960, developing 10 treatments and scripts that weren’t based on any of the existing Bond novels. The joint script efforts, ultimately titled “Thunderball,” were intended to become the original James Bond film.
Though those scripts and treatments did not result in the production of a film, Sony said, Fleming later wrote a novel based on them, also titled “Thunderball,” without giving McClory credit or payment from the book. McClory successfully sued Fleming, and in 1963 was awarded various rights, including the ability to reproduce any part of the “Thunderball” novel in films, and to use the Bond character.
“As a consequence of his joint authorship, McClory has at all times been at least a co-owner of copyright in and to the McClory scripts and all their elements, including the James Bond character as delineated therein,” according to the Sony counter-claims. “Consequently, McClory (and now SPE) may freely exploit the McClory scripts.”
Though a Bond pic called “Thunderball” was produced in 1965, Pierce O’Donnell, lead attorney for MGM and Bond pic pro-duction company Danjaq, disputed Sony’s attempt to use that film as the source of McClory’s ownership.
“The cinematic James Bond was fully delineated by the time ‘Thunderball’ was made,” said O’Donnell, citing the already-released UA pics. “Instead of meeting us on the merits of our claim, they’ve concocted this bizarre claim that a man who spent a few months working on an unsuccessful ‘Thunderball’ script with the man who created James Bond can somehow become the owner of the cinematic James Bond.”
O’Donnell also questioned the timeliness of the suit.
“This novel claim is being asserted for the first time in 35 years, after UA has made 18 Bond movies,” said O’Donnell. “It is preposterous as a matter of fact and of law.”
MGM and Danjaq released a brief response to the new Sony claims of ownership. “The defendant’s response confirms our strongly held belief that Sony was delusional in asserting that it can launch a new series of James Bond films,” an official MGM statement said. “Expanding radically upon Kevin McClory’s time-worn assertion of his rights to make James Bond movies based on ‘Thunderball,’ Sony now makes completely unfounded new claims.”