Friday, March 23, 2012

The Battle For James Bond

Cinema history might have been very different had the first James Bond film not been Dr. No starring Sean Connery. Thunderball could have been directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Richard Burton as secret agent 007. It sounds preposterous and unbelievable, but it almost happened. 

It began way back in 1958 when maverick Irish producer Kevin McClory collaborated with 007 creator Ian Fleming, and screenwriter Jack Whittingham, on a film script that was eventually entitled, Thunderball. Details of this scenario can be found among the documentary extras on the Thunderball DVD and BluRay releases. Today, this story is commonly known among die-hard fans of the fictional James Bond character. Long story short, the movie never got made and Dr. No became the series opener. Flash forward a few years later: the fourth installment of the Bond franchise was Thunderball, the most expensive Bond film made to date (and would remain the most expensive for more than a decade and a half), and would be the highest grossing movie of the franchise for many years. Even a Christmas TV special helped promote the movie's release and boy, they made a lot of money!

With Fleming and McClory's initial enterprise fizzled out, Fleming ultimately used the screenplay as the basis for the fourth movie, and a new Bond novel, believing he had all the rights to do so. After all, he was the co-author/creator. Feeling betrayed, McClory and Whittingham sued Fleming for plagiarism. The lawsuit went on for a lengthy period of time and McClory legally retained the option to remake Thunderball, resulting in the 1983 Never Say Never Again, notable for the return of Sean Connery to the Bond role after a 12-year absence. (This is why Never Say Never Again is always sold separately and never among the James Bond multi-movie DVD sets -- it really wasn't part of the official series.)

In July of 2007, Tomahawk Press published a book, The Battle for Bond, exploring in further detail the evidence that the screen version of James Bond was not Fleming's creation. The book, if I can be dramatic, was a tale of bitter recriminations, betrayal, multi-million dollar lawsuits and death. McClory, you see, claimed that while Fleming had created the Bond character for the novels years prior, the movie version of James Bond was not the same as that of the books and felt he should be compensated for the "creation" of the screen version. A dispute the courts would have to settle.

“Having read Robert Sellers’ manuscript, The Battle For Bond will undoubtedly become the most important book ever published about the evolution of Ian Fleming’s James Bond from Fifties’ literary sensation to Sixties’ cinematic icon. With many unpublished facts and information drawn firsthand from correspondence between Ian Fleming and Kevin McClory, and the other protagonists involved at the inception of Agent 007 becoming a screen hero, Sellers’ book is a ‘must read’ for anyone who considers themselves either a Bond aficionado or a serious student of the history of cinema.”
GRAHAM RYE, Editor & Publisher, 007 MAGAZINE

The author, Robert Sellers, dug deep into vaults, conducted exclusive interviews with people involved, and put together a documentary approach to a case that fans were already familiar with. But shortly after the book's release, the publishers started receiving threats of litigation from Olswang, the lawyers for the Ian Fleming Will Trust. "Who are they?" you may ask -- a good question and one that the publishers to this day are unable to answer. "It appears that they keep their activities as far from public scrutiny as possible," Bruce Sachs of Tomahawk explained. "Their exact whereabouts is a mystery, too. They only speak through their lawyers."

It seems The Trust took issue with the fact that the author and the publishing company reproduced nine rather innocuous documents -- short scribbled notes, a brief telegram and a date penciled in a diary -- that had been submitted in evidence during the Ian Fleming plagiarism trial. Olswang referred to these very few documents as "a highly valuable portion of Ian Fleming's legacy," and were unaware they even existed until they were published in The Battle for Bond. The publishing company is located in England, where copyright law is a bit different than it is in the U.S. For those who are not aware, any documents submitted in court as evidence go into the public domain, as written in the U.S. Copyright Law. They become "public knowledge" and "public information" and therefore open for anyone to reprint.

Could Olswang have been looking for an excuse to ban this book? They could find nothing to take issue with in this factual and well-balanced account of events, so they went after this minor issue of "possible" copyright infringement. The Trust would, apparently, entertain no outcome to this but the complete banning of the book.

It wasn't long after this was done in March 2008, that the publishing company was immersed in a media storm. They were contacted by newspapers and the BBC for official comment. The internet was buzzing with the news. If the Fleming Trust was trying to suppress the information, then this had gone badly wrong for them. As a consequence of renewed public and media interest, a new edition of the book went to print, a second edition, with the original text unchanged.

As reported in Cinema Retro magazine, "It's hard to fathom what the Fleming estate hoped to gain by these actions. They've taken a low-profile book and given it enormous exposure. Sellers [the author] was not uncovering a scandal; the courtroom case involving Fleming was major news at the time and has been extensively covered in every biography of the author... they have insured that the book will now be highly-sought by readers who might otherwise have never known it existed."

And Cinema Retro is correct. Case histories like this have happened before. Big companies with a lot of money believe they can intimidate the little fellow by threatening a lawsuit, even though the little fellow is in his full right to publish material that is documentary in nature. Is the author reprinting something truly copyrighted, without permission from the author or publisher? That is, of course, all to be determined in court. But facts are facts and whether the author truly did research (which means digging into archives, not copying what they find in other books and on the world wide web) can be determined simply by the material they include in their written thesis.

Personal commentary to clarify the right to publish: Over the years, I have met a number of people who post copyrighted materials on the internet and/or published books, claiming they are legally entitled to do so because U.S. Copyright Law dictates they can. The reasons vary from "everything is in the public domain" to "I'm providing a service to the public." Everyone has a stance on copyright, and believe they know better than the rest. But there is a reason why books and magazine articles are submitted to the U.S. Copyright Office for Federal protection in the first place. And anyone who chooses to post something on the internet needs to be reminded that if it's copyrighted, it's illegal to do so. And if you are not certain if it's copyrighted, don't do it. Just this past year I discovered someone scanning whole pages from one of my books and posting them on their web-site. When I approached them via e-mail and asked them to please cease and desist, they claimed as a U.S. War Veteran they have rights and are entitled to do so. So I did what I had to. I brought it to the attention of the attorneys at their internet service provider, including the Federal Copyright Registration number. Within hours the material was removed. Remarkable.

I'll sum this up briefly in one sentence. Unless someone spent at least four years at a School of Law to learn about Copyrights, they shouldn't try to quote the laws as a means to justify their own actions. As an author myself, I find it distressing that over the past two or three years, the issue of copying material from a published book has gotten worse. I would like to think that this problem will diminish over time... but who is at fault? The person responsible for lifting material out of a book I wrote or the people who choose to support those web-sites?

As for Tomahawk Press, who decided not to give in to the threats from the Fleming Trust... good for you. (They did remove a few passages from Ian Fleming's personal letters, as the threat of litigation had some form of basis, according to U.K. law, for the second edition.) This is just another case where the big companies keep forgetting that the internet (and the fan base) is a powerful tool that can make an impact. As an author myself who wrote more than 20 books about vintage movies, television and old-time radio programs, and has published excerpts from personal letters, contracts and archives (with permission from the copyright holders and only after consulting a paid legal attorney to verify I was within my rights to do so), it's nice to see a publishing company that stands their ground when it comes to legal intimidation. Their second printing is testament to their dedication.

As for the book, The Battle For Bond, which Robert Sellers so wonderfully researched and documented, it comes with my highest recommendation. I did not choose to tell the entire story of McClory vs. Fleming in this blog post simply out of respect: I don't want to give it all away because that would do injustice to the author. But the book deserves your fullest attention by buying a copy and reading this book. It's a wonderful study of how people who work hard and put together a documentary approach on a subject they feel passionate about. And as a Bond fan, it's a great read as well.