Movie studio settles claim over copyrighted sculpture

Content Regulation | Feature | February 23, 1998

Movie studio settles claim over copyrighted sculpture

02/23/98

VIRGINIA--In mid-February, the Warner Bros. movie studio, a Virginia-based sculptor and the Washington National Cathedral agreed that several scenes would be edited out of the 1997 film, "The Devil's Advocate," after the artist and cathedral claimed a religious sculpture located in the cathedral was appropriated and distorted into a "satanic" work in the movie.

Warner Bros. was forced into a settlement after a federal judge in Alexandria, Va., ruled that if the parties could not come to an agreement, he would prohibit the film's video distribution until the case goes to trial. Judge T.S. Ellis III found that there was "a very substantial likelihood" that the film violates the cathedral and the artist's copyrights on the sculpture. The judge held that the resemblance between a bas-relief in the film and the sculpture adorning the main entrance at the cathedral could potentially affect the sale of the artist's work.

Sculptor Frederick Hart and the cathedral claimed that Hart's sculpture, "Ex Nihilo" (Out of Nothing), depicting God's creation of human beings, was copied by the filmmaker as a bas-relief. In the film, the work hangs on a wall in the apartment of the devil -- a New York attorney played by Al Pacino -- and the human forms are seen writhing erotically in one scene.

The agreement requires Warner Bros. to edit the scene before the movie can be released for either pay-per-view or network screenings of the film. Under the agreement, 475,000 unedited copies of the videotape, which had been created before the settlement, were sent to video stores in mid-February with a sticker disclaiming any affiliation between the sculpture in the film and Hart's sculpture.

Before the settlement, Warner Bros. had argued that an editing solution would be problematic because the bas-relief is visible for 20 minutes in the film. "You can't cut it without disrupting the flow of the film," Robert Schwartz, attorney for Warner Bros., told the judge, according to a Washington Post report.

According to Variety, the film's director, Taylor Hackford, is not involved in the settlement or impending editing changes because Warner Bros. controls the movie's copyrights. (Hart v. Warner Bros., Inc.)