‘Lassie’ heirs regain rights

Court decision reverses Classic Media win

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Friday that the daughter of Eric Knight, the author of “Lassie Come Home,” has the right to terminate Classic Media’s copyrights in the classic story of a boy and his dog.

Friday’s decision reverses Classic Media’s win on summary judgment in the lower court.

The court’s opinion addressed a complicated issue of copyright law involving whether the law’s termination of transfer right is eradicated by a post-1978 assignment of the rights. In a victory for authors and their heirs, the court held that their rights are not terminated.

As outlined in the 25-page decision, Knight granted rights to make the television series to a predecessor to Classic in 1940. Knight’s heirs renewed the copyrights in the 1960s. Classic obtained an assignment of rights from Winifred Knight Mewborn, one of Knight’s three daughters who also assigned their rights in 1976, and an additional grant of ancillary rights only from Mewborn in 1978 for $3,000.

In 1996, Mewborn served a termination notice, and Classic claimed that she didn’t have the right to terminate the copyright under copyright law. After years of vituperative letters, Classic finally sued in 2005, seeking a declaration of rights. Reversing the lower court, the 9th Circuit held that the 1976 Copyright Act intended to benefit heirs, and Mewborn’s post-1978 assignment did not terminate her rights.

“Seventy years after Eric Knight first penned his tale of the devoted Lassie who struggled to come home, at least some of the fruits of his labors will benefit his daughter,” concluded the 9th Circuit.

Mewborn, who is now 87, was represented by Marc Toberoff, who has scored a series of wins on behalf of rights holders and their heirs, including high-profile cases involving “Dukes of Hazzard” and “Superman.”