"Act of State" Doctrine Keeps Van Gogh at Yale

Although the United States didn't officially recognize the government of the former Soviet Union until 1933 -- 15 years after the Russian revolution occurred -- a U.S. court recognized the U.S.S.R.'s right to confiscate art as far back as its beginning.

In 1918, the Bolsheviks abolished private property in the new communist state and confiscated the art collection of a Russian collector.  Among the seized works was Van Gogh's painting, The Night Café.  The painting was later sold to an American collector who, in turn, bequeathed it in his will to Yale University.

An heir of the original Russian collector sued in an American court to recover the painting, saying the seizure by the then Soviet government was illegal.  However, the court ruled that it couldn't even consider the legality because of the ?act of state? doctrine.  That doctrine prohibits U.S. courts from hearing cases challenging acts done by a recognised foreign government within its own territory.

No Time Like the Present to Sue

Just in case you were looking for an example of how far back you have to reach to appropriate a piece of intellectual property without worrying whether you might get sued for copyright infringement, a lawsuit filed in California makes a timely point.

Harold Lloyd Entertainment, Inc., is suing Cupecoy Home Fashion, Inc., for what the plaintiff says is copyright infringement of an image from a silent movie released in 1923.  Had the film been released a year earlier, it would be in the public domain under current U.S. copyright law.  But, as it is, the film is still under copyright protection -- at least until 2018.

The movie is Safety Last!, perhaps the most famous film made by the comic actor Harold Lloyd.  The iconic image derived from it is that of Mr. Lloyd hanging precariously from the minute hand of a giant clock mounted to the outside of a tall building.

Even if you've never seen the film, you might have seen a still image of that classic moment from it.  Or you might remember similar moments in the later films, Back to the Future or Hugo.  According to reports, the producers of both of those films paid fees to Harold Lloyd Entertainment for the privilege of incorporating those clock-hanging scenes into their movies.

In the case of the current lawsuit, the plaintiff charges that Cupecoy Home Fashion utilized a strikingly similar image in its advertising but didn't get permission from Harold Lloyd Entertainment to do so.  That resulted in litigation.

Will the court rule in favor of the plaintiff or the defendant?  Well...wait for it...only time will tell.

Plaintiff Slips on Banana Appeal

It's a classic moment in American jurisprudence when a dancing banana can have its day in court.  Such was the case when Catherine Conrad, a woman who makes her living performing in a costume resembling a large banana, filed a copyright infringement suit against the people who hired her to give a show.

Ms. Conrad claimed the event's organizers didn't give proper warning to the audience that they couldn't take photos or make videos of the performance except for their own use.  When those things later turned up on Facebook, Ms. Conrad sued, claiming her costume and performance are copyright protected.

Well, the case went all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, which ruled against the banana lady.  In the Court's published opinion--which, by the way, comes complete with a full-color photo of Ms. Conrad in the banana costume--the judges held that, while the plaintiff charged that the event organizers didn't alert the audience of her restrictions on photo/video use until after the performance, there was no evidence that any of the photos were posted online until after the warning was issued.  Result: the banana was told to split.

Even further, Judge Richard Posner included in the opinion a suggestion that, because Ms. Conrad has a history of filing what he termed "frivilous" suits and not paying her litigation costs, he suggested courts block her from filing more such claims until her litigation debts are paid.

It Ain't Over Till the Fat Lady Sings to the NLRB

They're ready to hang up the "Out of Business" sign on the door at the San Diego Opera.  Dwindling revenue, combined with rising costs, has just made it too unprofitable to keep going.  So says the opera's board, which voted to ring the curtain down for good.

But, wait -- there's yet another act.  The labor union that represents the singers and chorus members asked the National Labor Relations Board to request an injunction that would freeze the opera company?s assets long enough for union members with contracts to be paid.

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the union is citing a portion of labor law that allows the NLRB to ask a federal judge for an injunction to protect contractual rights of workers.  The article says there could be close to a million dollars at stake cumulatively for about twenty-five artists.

The Gaugin by the Sink

When you mention hanging art in the kitchen, thoughts might immediately stray to tacking children's crayon drawings and water color pictures to the refrigerator with a magnet.  But one retired auto factory worker had paintings worth millions hanging in his kitchen.  He just didn't know it at the time.

A story in the New York Times reports that, in 1975, a man who worked for Fiat in Italy bought a couple of paintings for about $70 and hung them in his kitchen.  Turns out they were stolen masterpieces by Paul Gaugin and Pierre Bonnard.  The estimated value of the two paintings is upwards to more than $60 million.

The paintings were stolen from a London residence in 1970 but somehow ended up being abandoned in an Italian railroad, which, not knowing the pedigree of the works, sold them off for what might be considered pocket change.

The works were identified after the factory worker?s son saw a familiar image in a book of paintings by Paul Gauguin. That's when the family called experts who then contacted the Italian police.

Authorities are still trying to track down the heirs of the original owners to return the works.  If they can't find any, then they just might go back to the man with the exceptionally artistic kitchen.