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July 23, 2006

Groucho Marx: Copyright Activist!

image of Groucho Marx

It's been around for 60 years, but I've just discovered this brilliant letter that Groucho Marx sent to some dipsh*t lawyers at Warner Brothers, who thought that the Marx Brothers couldn't release a movie called "A Night in Casablanca" because Warner Brothers had released the Humphrey Bogart film "Casablanca" five years earlier. Groucho sends back one of the great replies in legal history. You can read the whole thing on ChillingEffects.org, a brilliant website chronicling the ongoing erosion of all of our personal freedoms when it comes to intellectual property, but here's an excerpt:

Apparently there is more than one way of conquering a city and holding it as your own. For example, up to the time that we contemplated making this picture, I had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers. However, it was only a few days after our announcement appeared that we received your long, ominous legal document warning us not to use the name Casablanca.  It seems that in 1471, Ferdinand Balboa Warner, your great-great-grandfather, while looking for a shortcut to the city of Burbank, had stumbled on the shores of Africa and, raising his alpenstock (which he later turned in for a hundred shares of common), named it Casablanca.  I just don’t understand your attitude. Even if you plan on releasing your picture, I am sure that the average movie fan could learn in time to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo. I don’t know whether I could, but I certainly would like to try.

In the wake of Groucho's letter (you really dowant to read the whole thing), the Warner Brothers legal department demanded that the Marx Brothers at least provide them with an advance copy of the plot of their movies. Groucho responded with a series of insane plots, including one where he said he intended to star in the movie as "Bordello, the sweetheart of Humphrey Bogart." Warner Brothers eventually either came to their senses, or just threw in the towel. "A Night in Casablanca" came out in 1946.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at July 23, 2006 02:04 PM