Michael Lucas Triumphs in ’La Dolce Vita’ Lawsuit

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday April 19, 2010

The title of his film is "Michael Lucas's La Dolce Vita." If that reminds you of something, that's probably not a coincidence. The anti-hero of Lucas' film resembles that of the classic 1960 film directed by Federico Fellini.

In a case followed by copyright lawyers, a judge dismissed the claim that Lucas owed the plaintiff money for the use of the name. The judge narrowly ruled that International Media Films owned the copyright to the older film. But the ruling may have implications to other porn titles that borrow from mainstream films.

The Judgment

The summary judgment was rendered by John George Koeltl, who presides over the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan. His most famous case was sentencing radical lawyer Lynne Stewart to jail for passing messages from her client, the alleged mastermind behind the World Trade Center bombing, to Mideastern terrorists.

In the Lucas case, the judge ruled on a case that spent three years making its way through the courts. International Media Films claimed that Lucas’ gay porn film violated IMF’s copyright to Fellini’s film and associated trademarks.

The court had previously allowed Lucas to continue to distribute the film, pending the outcome of the case. On April 8, 2010, the judge ruled on the case, which began in February 2007.

Who Owns the Italian Film?

That’s a good question. Lucas Films spent nearly $500,000 trying to find the answer. The porn production company, based in New York City, sent a lawyer to Italy to "make discovery," the process by which one side of a lawsuit attempts to find out all the information about the other side, through depositions, examination of witnesses and documents, and anything else they can find.

In this case, what Lucas’ legal eagles found was the IMF had no specific claim to Fellini’s intellectual estate.

On its website, International Media Films Inc. lists La Dolce Vita as a property. But oddly, there is no information about how to obtain the property for any kind of "window" - that is, distribution channel. Instead, the apparent head of the company, Alfredo Leone, has a vague promise of "developing" a musical based on the Fellini film.

What is odder is that the company has no other information about itself on its website. A Google search reveals that most of the citations of the company are for ... its protracted lawsuit against Lucas Films.

The Lucas Version

In Lucas’ film, there are similarities. The anti-hero, played by Lucas himself, is a dissolute celebrity journalist, like Marcello Mastrianni in the original. He also finds himself alone after his much put-upon spouse (a younger gay man who has his own tryst - hey, it’s a porn movie) leaves him.

In his version, Lucas doesn’t chase after stories like some bratty kids claiming to see the Madonna. He doesn’t entertain his father from the sticks. And he doesn’t have an intellectual friend who meets a terrible end.

But he does have a successful friend who gets into some very bad legal trouble. He is working sporadically on a novel. And he does come to his senses (unlike Fellini’s protagonist) after an all-night orgy.

Most significant, Lucas filmed a beautiful tribute to the original’s most famous scene, wherein the Swedish actress Anita Ekberg (playing a Swedish actress) makes out with Mastroianni in the Fountain of Trevi.

Lucas actually does kiss a woman playing an actress in a New York City fountain. (In his version, the estranged boyfriend is having a private session with a very hot go-go boy.)

Such a similarity could lead to what a copyright attorney told EDGE was an appropriation of the original’s imagery. More notably, a title is almost never considered exclusive unless a plaintiff can prove that it has become so familiar it has become a virtual brand name.

Porn & Parody

The case does bring up some interesting points about the uneasy relationship between porn and mainstream films.

Lucas’ film, which may well be the most lavish gay porn film ever made, utilizes great indoor and outdoor locations in New York City (the film even cites the Mayor’s Office of Film for cooperating). It has great original music, costumes and - even more rare in a porn film - good, even affecting, acting.

Ultimately, of course, it’s a porn film. Porn films have been parodying hit films for decades. Not only that, but mainstream parodies also use similar titles, such as "Airplane!," the brilliant satire on the mega-hit "Airport."

Lucas released a film last year called "Entrapment." There was a film of the same name made 10 years before starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sean Connery. No one sued for that.

"There’s no question because it’s a totally different story," Lucas point out. "My film is ’Michael Lucas’ La Dolce Vita.’ It’s mostly sex. There’s no confusion."

Lucas attributes the case to our litigious society. There have been cases of big corporations suing small fry with the same name; the defendant usually has to take a cash settlement and change the name rather than go through a protracted court case.

In any event, the redoubtable Lucas, who doesn’t shy away from a fight, is enjoying his hard-fought legal victory.

Author’s note: I contacted several prominent copyright lawyers, who all refused to speak to me when they learned the story was about a porn title. I finally was able to speak to one gay attorney, off the record, who told me the case was being widely read among his peers. They would do well to keep in mind what a Virginia U.S. representative said when he opposed a law banning burning the flag: "History informs us that the strength of America is derived from its basic ideals, one of the most important of which is tolerance for the full expression of ideas, even the most obnoxious ones." Cases like "Lady Chatterly’s Lover" have not only established precedence, they are the canary in the coal mine of free speech.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).