'The Butler' Title Fight Turns the Spotlight On Harvey Weinstein


Big name film producer, Harvey Weinstein, is a seasoned expert in debating with the Motion Picture Association of America. His latest stint is a dispute with larger film company, Warner Bros over the right to the title The Butler, for Lee Daniels' upcoming film. 

The Butler is a film based on the life of Cecil Gaines, (played by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker), a White House butler who served eight presidents. The cast includes big names among the ranks including Oprah Winfrey, Minka Kelly, John Cusack, Robin Williams, James Marsden, and Jane Fonda. The film, scheduled for release Aug. 16, according to the Hollywood Reporter, is an early contender for 2014 Academy Awards nominations.  

According to the Guardian, Weinsten has pointed fingers at Warner Bros for "trying to bully his smaller production house into giving up its share of profits from the Hobbit films in exchange for naming rights" to the unreleased feature film. 

There are, of course, many movies with identical titles. A list compiled by The Wrap includes Crash (1996) and Crash (2004), Kicking and Screaming (1995) and Kicking and Screaming (2004), Gladiator (1992) and Gladiator (2000), The Avengers (1998) and The Avengers (2012) and Bad Boys (1983) and Bad Boys (1995). These dual-titles are not illegal, according to Slatewhich reported that "film titles cannot be copyrighted, and although trademark and unfair competition laws can offer recourse, the litigant must convince the court that use of the name misleads or confuses the public." 

The MPAA is essentially responsible for refereeing these debates; the major film studios must register their title names with the bureau. If any subscriber contests that a title "infringes on one they may have previously registered" the MPAA "arbitrates the dispute and makes a ruling, which can be appealed."

Weinstein is centering the dispute over whether both The Weinstein Company and Warner Bros have followed the regulations set by the MPAA's Title Registration Bureau, wrote the Hollywood Reporter.

Thus far, the MPAA has backed Warner Bros claim that the company owns the rights to the name The Butler based on "a little-known 1919 silent comedy short with the same title." Warner Bros is not stepping down, according to Deadline.comthe production company is preparing to fight to block Weinstein's access to the title. 

Weinstein has brought the debate to the public eye. During an interview Tuesday July 9 on CBS This Morning, he recalled his account of the dispute.

"I was asked by two execs at Warner Brothers, which I'm happy to testify to, that if I gave them back the rights to The Hobbit they would drop the claim," Weinstein said on the CBS news magazine show. "For a 1916 short? This was used as a bullying tactic. I think this is 100%. This was the big guy trying to hit the small guy," Weinstein said during his TV interview. He then added that he will not back down. “My dad taught me to fight injustice. This is unjust,” Weinstein said. 

Few people are surprised that Weinstein is making the debate a public spectacle. The New York Times called the Weinsteins "sophisticated experts" in the arena of "creating 'well-publicised controversies' in order to promote their films. As the Hollywood Reporter noted, Weinstein's "scorched-earth tactics" have been successful in the past, mostly because he has won the favor of the press. He used controversial tactics, calling on high-publicity, to overturn an NC-17 rating for a softer R rating for his films Blue Valentine (2010) and Clerks (1994). Regardless of the final outcome, "one of Weinstein’s first moves is always to call in high-powered lawyers," wrote the Hollywood Reporter.

The debate between Weinstein and Warner Bros is not the first of its kind, according to Slate. In 1997 Sony and Miramax argued over whether  the latter's Screamers was too similar to the former's title Scream. MGM also argued that New Line Cinema's Austin Powers in Goldmember was too similar to its James Bond title, Goldfinger. In both cases, the disputes were dropped after minimal concessions. 

The future for Lee Daniels' The Butler is unclear as its release date looms closer. If history is any indication, however, Weinstein will most likely pull out all the stops to get his way. Warner Bros will likely acquiesce to Weinstein's demand following some minor concessions without getting their hands on his rights to The Hobbit.