The continuing saga of Buck Rogers and the Copyright Trolls
Back in October 2015 we brought you the story of the Buck Rogers Copyright Trolls, two lawyers who were fighting to keep Buck Rogers from entering the public domain using the discredited Sherlock Holmes system of licensing. Two and a half years later, Louise Geer and Dan Herman are still at it, using every trick in the book to keep a beloved tale out of the public domain, where it firmly belongs. Along the way the pair have stiffed multiple law firms, and currently are abusing a Bankruptcy Court in Pennsylvania in a Hail Mary effort to...well, it’s not exactly clear what they’re trying to do.
The lawsuit began in 2015 when Angry Films and Producer Don Murphy (Transformers, Real Steel) announced plans to film the original Buck Rogers novella, ARMAGEDDON 2419, as a major motion picture. The original novel entered the public domain in 2010, seventy years after the author’s death, and in any event was “strategically never renewed" according to court documents filed by Flint Dille, the son of the original copyright holder, Robert Dille. Dille was tapped, along with Ed Neumaier (Robocop) to write the film, which was to be a serious take on the material. As they got started, Geer and Herman, acting on behalf of the Dille Family Trust, threatened to sue everyone involved, claiming they owned the copyright on the material. Yes you read that right, trustees who are supposed to be protecting Flint Dille (who is one half of the two beneficiaries) sent a letter threatening the beneficiary of the trust, a clear breach of their responsibilities as trustees.
Delay Delay Delay
But it didn’t stop there. The trolls did everything possible to delay the case and muck up the works. The case belonged in a Los Angeles courtroom, where judges are versed in copyright. Instead they got it bounced to a small Federal court in Pitssburgh, where such cases are rarely (if ever) heard. They delayed for almost two years, arguing that they did not have to respond to motions from the defendants. When the judge asked for mandatory settlement talks ,they contracted a mysteirous illness. Then, when the discovery phase began, they suddenly declared bankruptcy (which spared them from answering some pointed questions).
It turns out the trollish behavior was not relegated to just the copyright situation- the Nowlan Family Trust (the heirs to the author of the original novel-- Dille was his publisher, and bought the rights in order to commission the comic strip that followed) had filed trademarks in a number of categories and been granted them. The Dille Family Trust sued the Nowlan Family Trust to get the trademarks purged. They did this several times but lost, because they had not used the marks themselves in business for decades. Even in this case, Geer and Herman stiffed the mediator for $6,000! But the weirdest thing is that trademarks cannot artificially extend copyright, so they all seemed to be fighting for something that, in the end, is clearly public domain.
Heritage Auctions Gets In the Act
So with multiple court dates pending against them and numerous outstanding judgments, the Dille Family Trust declared bankruptcy in November 2017. But from here it gets more bizarre, if that is even possible.
The Dille Family Trust recruited noted auction house Heritage Auctions to auction off whatever they have on an “As Is" basis. It seemed they hoped they could rush through the sale, filing an emergency motion asking for authority to do so, which the judge denied. They listed multiple US and foreign trademarks for auction and scheduled the auction for early May. Now, their website lists an August 24 start date even though the judge has not approved any auction. (some references: 1, 2, 3, 4)
In the fine print they list several legal cases seemingly to warn buyers about claims but they refer to the lawsuits as “Stayed" or on hold when in fact these “stays" are only on hold during the bankruptcy period. All cases will reactivate after that.
When I contacted Heritage for a statement as to why they would collaborate in selling something at auction that may (court cases pending) end up being completely worthless, they responded in a written statement
“Heritage is not involved in a legal dispute but rather was appointed by a Bankruptcy Judge to auction property in compliance with a court order for the benefit of the legal creditors and beneficiaries of the Dille Family Trust."
But this t makes it sound like the judge choose Heritage. In fact, Dan Herman has a previous relationship with Heritage and put them forward to the judge, not the other way around. In addition Heritage seems fine with the fact that one of the beneficiaries, -- noted genre creator and Creative Lead at Niantic Studios (Pokemon Go, Ingress) Flint Dille -- is opposed to everything the Trustees are doing, even filing his own lawsuit to stop them.
“It is puzzling that we have come to this situation," said Dille. “ I fell out with my sister after the death of our mother when she went and sold valuable collectibles at auction. Now she has the Trustees working with her and driving the Trust into bankruptcy, and I can’t see any clear goal in sight. Dan Herman is expecting to auction these trademarks off to people who will then, in his own estimate, have to spend $750,000 clearing up the litigation. Who will want to do that?" It does seem odd, considering the track record of Murphy and Dille, that the Trust would be opposed to wanting to do a film with them.
Evil plot or just petty rivalries?Herman and the Dille Trust retained the firm of bankruptcy attorney Donald Calaiaro. Calaiaro’s firm is working on contingency (they do not get paid unless the Trust manages to pull off a sale). Under this arrangement, the bankruptcy lawyers are first in line to get paid in the liquidation, which limits the recoupment propsects of everyone owed money by the Trust (a significant number). The Calaiaro law suffered a blow last year his own son admitted to embezzling $827,000 from the firm.
To date, they have ignored deadlines for discovery, while stepping up efforts to rush through a sale of the disputed assets.
On a website set up to expose what is going on, one notices that Lorraine Dille, Flint’s sister, has put herself in for almost $400,000 in promissory notes, although her brother cannot imagine for what. “Where would that money have been spent?" he stated.
Copyright Trolls Indeed
This all started years ago when Murphy announced he was making a film based on public domain property, ARMAGEDDON:2419. His announcement at San Diego Comic Con started a flurry of threatening letters promising lawsuits from the Dille Family Trust. This is a case where the lawyers look like they’ll be the only winners.At the hearings, bankruptcy Judge Jeffrey Deller seemed frustrated with the whole thing
The next bankruptcy hearing is scheduled for the end of July, unless the Judge dismisses before then, since the Trust has recently ignored a discovery deadline for over six weeks.
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