How the World’s Worst Movie Could Change Copyright

Manos LogoWhenever a list is published of the worst movies of all times, Manos: The Hands of Fate almost always makes an appearance and for good reason.

From its title, which translated to “Hands: Hands of Fate”, to its confusing story and excessive love for boring driving sequences (including over 8 minutes of driving footage in the intro), it has been declared one of the least watchable films of all time.

Like countless others, I first learned about Manos from Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K), the comedy show famous for cracking jokes over B movies. Manos was an instant hit for the show, an absolutely terrible film that was completely ripe for comedy and parody.

However, since the MST3K release, Manos has developed a cult following (which is appropriate given the film’s subject). But attempts to exploit that cult following by the film’s creators and their heirs have proved difficult because the film is generally held to be in the public domain.

But, pending an unauthorized remastering of the film, the copyright status of the film may become a source of legal controversy as the heir to the creator and a Kickstarter-backed filmmaker clash over just what is and is not up for grabs.

A (Brief) History of Manos

mst3k-logoHarold Warren was not a filmmaker. He made his living as a salesman, first selling newspapers and then selling insurance. But for reasons that are the realm of urban legend, in 1966 Warren decided that he wanted to make a film of his own.

In a time before independent films were common, Warren cobbled together about $19,000 (compared to the average production, which was $3 million at the time) and, with little more than a Filmo 70 camera and a local theater troupe Warren was a member of, he set out to make the film.

That film would be Manos: The Hands of Fate, a tale about a vacationing family that, after getting lost, angers a local cult leader simply named “The Master”. The Master worships a lesser devil named “Manos” and, as part of his ritual, The Master seeks to add to his harem of women. The family is then ensnared in the cult’s grasp, fighting to escape the hands of fate.

The film, however, was an instant failure. After a few showings, it drew far more laughs than chills. It was quickly forgotten, seemingly doomed to being less than a footnote.

That is until 1993 when it was dug up by the staff at Mystery Science Theater 3000, a comedy show that featured a host and two talking robots cracking jokes over bad movies. They took the film and created an episode with it. That episode went on to be come of the most popular in the long-running series and the episode maintains a cult following today.

MST3K seized upon the film in part because Warren had forgotten to include a copyright notice in the print. The same thing that happened to Night of the Living Dead, this meant the film was in the public domain and that anyone, including MST3K, was free to use the film without seeking license or paying royalties.

In 2011 cameraman and film collector Ben Solovey discovered a work print of the original Manos in a collection of film cans he purchased. Surprised to own the best copy of the film available, Solovey launched a Kickstarter to restore the film.

That Kickstarter raised nearly $50,000 to pay for the restoration, which was not only used to clean up the film itself, but also to produce a high-definition version of it. According to the kickstarter page, the project recently sent out the last of its discs.

This might have been the end of the story for Manos, the tale of a terrible film that was forgotten, rediscovered and then restored. But a surprise claim and a copyright conundrum threatens to add yet another chapter to the film’s already lengthy saga.

The Copyright Battle

Manos the Hands of FateThough Solovey has enjoyed the support of many involved with the film and their heirs, Joe Warren, the son of Harold Warren, has been far from supportive. Eager to preserve his father’s legacy, he has begun to try and restore control of the film.

Joe Warren’s first action was taken as Solovey was screening the restored film. He sent a letter an actor who appeared in the film and was selling merchandise, warning her that, “All the characters are copyrighted and as such can’t be used without permission either by you or by Solovey.”

Joe Warran sent this note on the logic that, while the film itself is widely believed to be in the public domain, the film’s script, originally entitled The Lodge of Sins, had been registered and the copyright on it was still valid.

This raises a very difficult question: How much control does ownership of the script give you over a public domain movie?

There’s no clear answer to that question because no court has looked at it. However, there are similar stories in copyright history, the most prominent of which is the case of It’s a Wonderful Life.

It’s a Wonderful Life lapsed into the public domain after the owners failed the renew their copyright in the work (a requirement at the time). However, copyright in the short story it was based upon had remained valid and, after a Supreme Court ruling in a related case, the copyright in the music was reclaimed as well, effectively giving Republic Pictures control over the film.

However, with Manos, it’s not the backstory or music that’s at issue, it’s the script itself. Just how much leverage the script itself gives over a film that’s lapsed into the public domain is unclear.

Still, with a restoration project wrapping up and a whole revival movement taking place around the film, the answers to those questions may come sooner rather than later.

But, right now, everything is in a holding pattern. Even as the restoration project has moved forward, Joe Warren has not taken any action or even sent formal threats. Until he does, it’s unlikely a judge will take a look at these issues and, until that happens, the claims will be nothing more than a cloud of confusion surrounding the film.

The Bizarre Side Story

torgo-imageAccording to the article in Playboy (which I’ve cited a few times in this post), the story of Manos takes a strange turn when Joe Warren attempted to use his rights in the film to create a sequel, one set 40 years after the original.

Joe Warren got the idea for the sequel from a man named Rupert Talbot Munch Sr, who was a devout fan of the film and the character Torgo, who was a twitchy and awkward housekeeper for The Master.

After obtaining a budget for the sequel, only a fraction of the film was shot before the money ran out. However, afterward, Munch made a false claim that he was the curator of the estate for the film.

He first used that claim to try and work with Solovey on his restoration, which Solovey rejected because Munch wanted too much control. As a result, Solovey turned to Kickstarter.

However, the biggest debacle involved a Rifftrax screening of the film. Rifftrax, a company organized by the people behind MST3K to produce MST3K-like content, had planned to do a Nashville screening and live riffing of the film that would also be broadcast to theaters all over the world.

Munch approached Rifftrax shortly before the event saying that licensing fees needed to be paid. Too late to change the film, Rifftrax gave into Munch’s demands, which included an appearance by him as Torgo during the film.

Though his part was edited out of the DVD version, many, myself included, who saw it live remember it well. It was awkward, to say the least.

Bottom Line

Manos and It’s a Wonderful Life are two films that sit in a pretty unusual place when it comes to copyright. They are both films that lapsed into the public domain, found an audience and then later had attempts made to reclaim them.

But, where It’s a Wonderful Life is a story of a successful reclamation, the fate of Manos is less clear.

However, given the complex legal issues at play, it may well be the case that the work is not worth the battle over it. It’s not a blockbuster film that earns millions each year and, despite its cult status, it’s not the subject of endless midnight screenings or massive merchandising campaigns.

While the film almost certainly generates money, especially through the MST3K and related screenings, they likely aren’t enough to warrant the high cost of copyright litigation. This may explain why Joe Warren has resorted to making threats directly, targeting not only actors profiting from the film but at least one film festival screening it.

So while there are very interesting copyright questions buried in Manos, they are questions that will likely go unanswered.

Still, this is one movie whose fate is far from sealed.

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