Film Academy Sues Family Of Oscar Winner For Selling Trophy On Ebay

from the death-is-no-escape! dept

The Motion Picture Academy is notorious for being quite litigious, particularly when it comes to anything to do with the Oscars. Hell, even websites essentially promoting the Oscars get sued by the Academy, because why the hell not? And don’t you dare try to sell your tickets to the Oscars on the secondary market. But even with all of that, I wouldn’t have expected to see the Academy assert that they own the award hardware they hand out to Oscar winners, including after the death of those winners. Confused? Check this out.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has lined up a new lawsuit, painting the picture of a cinematographer’s heir who ignored bylaws by selling a statuette on eBay. The statuette was awarded in 1953 to Robert Surtees for excellence in black-and-white cinematography for the film, The Bad and the Beautiful, which starred Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner. More than 60 years later, the Film Academy is in court after Carol Surtees allegedly auctioned the statuette for $40,500. The Academy makes its members agree that it has a “right of first refusal” if the statuettes are ever sold. To prevent a black market for the famous trophies, the Academy believes itself entitled to purchase the statuettes for $10 in the event they are ever sold.

Carol was the wife of Bruce Surtees, who in turn was the son of Oscar winner Robert Surtees. In other words, the Oscar statuette from 1953 had been passed down to Carol after her husband and father-in-law had both passed away. She’s the widow of the winner’s son. The point of me driving this home is that, even if we pretend that it makes sense for the Academy to be able to claim that an item worth thousands of dollars must first be offered to them for the price of 2/3 of a ticket to one of their movies, that agreement would have been with the award winner, not his or her heirs. In this case, the statuette had been passed on twice thanks to the grim reaper doing his thing. In what world does it makes sense for Carol Surtees to have to follow bylaws to which she never agreed?

Not that this lack of logic is keeping the Academy from suing for every last dollar she got for the statuette. You can read the full lawsuit [pdf and embedded below].

The Academy alleges that it sent a letter to Surtees on December 5, spoke on the phone with her on December 12, and despite reminders about the right of first refusal, the auction happened on or about that latter day. She’s now being sued for breach of contract. The lawsuit also names John Does, who are being sued for alleged tortious interference. The Academy demands at least $40,500 in compensatory damages, punitive damages, and an order that the Oscar be put in a constructive trust, among other demanded relief.

I just can’t seem to grasp how someone can be in breach of a contract to which they were not party. The Academy can assert they have these rights all they want, but I can’t seem to find any reference to why those rights should exist with respect to Carol Surtees.



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Comments on “Film Academy Sues Family Of Oscar Winner For Selling Trophy On Ebay”

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97 Comments
Rob McMillinsays:

AMPAS legal terms

I understand that the Academy includes in its terms and conditions as part of the award a clause that gives them right of first refusal of any sale. That they are suing is a consequence of a contractual matter, and not mere litigiousness. (I believe this is not in effect for very old Oscars, before 1935 or so.)

G Thompsonsays:

Re: Re: AMPAS legal terms

A non party to a contract cannot be sued for any non performance or non compliance to that contract.

This is absolutely established law and no matter how the Academy tries to spin it they are still beholden to that. Otherwise I for one will now create a contract with Donald Duck and sue Disney for there non compliance.

Whether the Academy has within the terms of the contract this condition is absolutely moot in this instance.

Rekrulsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: AMPAS legal terms

A non party to a contract cannot be sued for any non performance or non compliance to that contract.

This is absolutely established law and no matter how the Academy tries to spin it they are still beholden to that. Otherwise I for one will now create a contract with Donald Duck and sue Disney for there non compliance.

Whether the Academy has within the terms of the contract this condition is absolutely moot in this instance.

The strategy isn’t to win in court, the strategy is to bully her into settling via the threat of a costly legal battle.

That Anonymous Cowardsays:

Can they show us her signature on the contract?

I wonder what people might think to know that the Oscars think an Oscar is only worth $10, I think that takes a bit of shine off of such a cheap shitty award.

You were so outstanding in your field we gave you this $10 trinket. It is such an honor to know all of my descendants will be hounded forever by these idiots over their $10 trophy, despite them GIVING it to me. Something something racially insensitive givers.

btr1701says:

Re: Re:

This is nothing new for AMPAS. They’ve even gone after recipients who have tried to give their Oscars away to charities and museums. They absolutely hate that the statues pass down to family members along with the rest of a recipient’s property and would love to be able to include a “right of reclamation” upon the death of the recipient to the award conditions, but their lawyers have told them that’s a step too far even for them.

Anonymoussays:

“The lawsuit also names John Does, who are being sued for alleged tortious interference.”

So who are these people who they allege intentionally interfered with their contract? The ebay buyers? Ebay itself? Whoever advised Mrs. Surtees that she was not bound by a contract made with her late father in law, and well within her rights to sell the cheap trinket to whoever was foolish enough to pay big bucks for it?

RRsays:

Who owns it?

Maybe the original recipient had to agree to never pass ownership to anyone who didn’t also agree to the policy.

When I bought my house the contract said I had to join the HOA, and that I couldn’t sell the house without putting the same requirement in the contract for the next owner. I don’t remember what happens if my kids inherit the house, or the bank gets it.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: Who owns it?

You can’t sign a contract that enforces terms on other people though. If you agree not to not pass on your house/trophy without including the same terms for the next person, but do so anyway (via the pesky business of dying, for example), that again just makes you the one they have a case against, not the recipient.

Signing a contract that says “Anyone I give this to is bound by the same contract I am signing” doesn’t make any sense.

art guerrillasays:

Re: Re: Who owns it?

well, in all likelihood, the terms of the covenant of your subdivision specify you must belong to the HOA…
so, it IS part of the contract for sale for anyone who buys within that subdivision…

in general, HOA SUCK big time… had to do it over, NO WAY i would have bought our property with the idiots who run the association…
(picture petty asshole neighbors who team up with lawyers who are salivating because they ‘earn’ THOUSANDS of dollars filing liens, etc over $200 dues in arrears… yes, you heard right, we spent THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS of dollars to hound one of our ‘neighbors’ to death over a couple hundred dollars not paid… about 3-4 fucktards out of the 15 properties make life miserable for everyone, but we can’t get enough people involved to vote them out…)

Sheogorathsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Who owns it?

You can’t do whatever you want with your own house even if it’s not in an HOA group. For example, there’s an Autistic kid not allowed to keep his therapy animal because zoning laws say that Vietnamese pot bellied pigs are livestock when most people would consider them to be pets. Luckily for the boy, he’s got a city councillor on his side, who’s trying to change the definition of the above stated breed of pigs in the zoning laws or, failing that, to make an exception for therapy animals.

DOlzsays:

Perhaps I misunderstood

I always thought the right of first refusal meant that if you matched the price being offered then you got to buy it. So if they had been willing to match the top bid of $40,500 they would have gotten it.

If they say you have to give them the first chance to buy if at a price of their choosing, then that?s not the right of first refusal it?s returning a security deposit.

Carlsays:

Number of Oscar Winners

I counted them according to the Wikipedia Article.

Assuming that every year there was exactly one Oscar for each category offered on that year, and that all are still somewhere, there are 1877 Oscars currently in circulation (since 1928).

Fore comparison, there have been 889 Nobel Laureates (sharing 567 prizes amongst themselves) since 1901.

Just for the curious

Succession - imposing obligations

It is conceivable that the Film Academy has a clause in its contracts, according to which successors/heirs have to become bound to the terms and conditions of the contract. This is a standard clause for certain matters where succession/inheritance can be an issue in the future. I am, however, not sure what happens, if the original contracting party does not bind his or her successors/heirs to the terms and conditions of the original contract.

G Thompsonsays:

Re: Re: Succession - imposing obligations

They could bind there immediate heirs to such a contract, though its highly questionable and bound to be looked at under frustration.

Though they cannot bind heirs of heirs (non immediate) to any contract no matter what. The Estate fell to the son, the son died. Instant termination of all contracts in original Estate.

Anonsays:

Re: Re: Succession - imposing obligations

It is conceivable that the Film Academy has a clause in its contracts, according to which successors/heirs have to become bound to the terms and conditions of the contract. This is a standard clause for certain matters where succession/inheritance can be an issue in the future. I am, however, not sure what happens, if the original contracting party does not bind his or her successors/heirs to the terms and conditions of the original contract.

That’s the $40,000 question (or the $10 question). Did the stipulation have a clause passing the obligation on to heirs? Is such a restriction legal?

Also, in what way is this a contract? It’s a gift. A contract requires quid pro quo, tit for tat; in return for getting the Oscar, the recipient also has to give the Academy something of value. Otherwise, it’s one-sided, it’s a gift. Without a tat, the Academy are just being tits.

ANONsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Succession - imposing obligations

IANAL but…

Isn’t there a thing in law that says if a term or condition does not have any reasonable extinguishment time, it is invalid? Perpetual contract clauses are not allowed. Everything must end at a roughly foreseeable time… (i.e. 99 years after the death of your youngest child at the time this contract was signed.)

Adamsays:

Re: Re: Succession - imposing obligations

It has been years since I took any law course and I never completed any law degree or become a lawyer, but I do remember some part about rules against perpetuities. I think it was 21 years after the death of the original contract holder or something like that.

So the requirement could be valid against the estate and holders of that property for 21 years, but he died in ’85 and it has gone through a secondary estate so I don’t think they have any valid claim, but I could always be wrong.

But ignoring those facts it is still ridiculous in my opinion that they are trying to force this type of an issue and make this woman fight them in court over an award they gave to a man over 60 years ago.

Anonymoussays:

Hollywood: where greed reigns supreme

Just like spammers and other sociopaths, these are people who would sell their own children to violent sexual predators — as long as the price was right. All the legal language, all the BS press releases, all the lies spouted by their spokespeople are just cover for their one and only agenda: make as much money as possible, and screw anyone who gets ripped off, damaged, hurt, or killed in the process.

There are Mexican drug cartels with higher ethical standards than this filth.

Davidsays:

Re: Re: Hollywood: where greed reigns supreme

Just like spammers and other sociopaths, these are people who would sell their own children to violent sexual predators — as long as the price was right.

They’d sell for a percentage of the profits and would sue if the buyer refused lucrative snuff video offers.

Heck, those are the kind of people who’d let their daughters marry Dick Cheney.

Capt ICE Enforcersays:

Here is what the contract states.

Congratulations Sir/Ma’am,
You have won the right to lease our award until death. Upon which our TOS agreement shall end and you will mail back the trophy in mint condition. Your rebate check of $10 will be sent in 6-8 weeks. We appreciate you choosing our service over the competition. Like us on Yelp, and Facebook to receive our custom dual ply trophy protection (TP) wipe.

V/R,
The Academy
(Not the one from XMen)

Anonymoussays:

seems to me they got some hints from how the Olympic Games is run and how the Olympic Committee behaves! if there is a chance of a law suit, take it. it would be real good to see this go to court and the Film Academy get shot down in flames!!
does copyright (and patent law) law need totally scrapping and starting again in a much more open, sensible and C21 way or what?

scotts13says:

Not about the money

I doubt very much the Academy is concerned with the $40k. It’s more like preserving the dignity of the institution; after all, selling family heirlooms on eBay IS kinda tacky. But, as I well know, sometimes you have to do unpleasant things. We know nothing of the financial circumstances of the heirs. Nor do we know the substance of any agreements between the Academy and the original recipient. It’s vaguely possible there was an agreement that, like some other awards, grants only possession, not ownership.

What we DO know is, it’s in incredibly poor taste to publicly sue the heirs. if they were REALLY interested in dignity, they would have made a behind-the-scenes offer equivalent to the eBay selling price. Smooth move, Academy.

That One Guysays:

Re: Re: Not about the money

It’s more like preserving the dignity of the institution; after all, selling family heirlooms on eBay IS kinda tacky.

If so, as the saying goes ‘YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!’.

Selling an award on Ebay may be ‘tacky’, and potentially damaging to the ‘dignity of the institution’, but it doesn’t even come close to the hit to their dignity they’ve suffered from suing the descendant of the award.

Lancesays:

In the future...

I believe that the Film Academy will shift from giving the statue, with the understanding that they retain the “right of first refusal”, and instead declare that they are bestowing upon the recipient “a non-transferable license to hold, display or otherwise use” the statue. There will probably be additional language that allows them to revoke said license for whatever reason they come up with.

That will do away with any of this nasty concept that the individual actually owns the item in question.

mattshowsays:

I actually think they do have a case to be made here, although I’d have framed it as a property law issue. When the Academy gave Robert Surtees the statute, they didn’t give it to him outright. They gave it to him subject to a right of first refusal. He can only pass on the rights he has, which means when he died and the statute passed on to his heirs, it passed on subject to that same right of first refusal.

But instead these lawyers have framed it as a contract law issue. That just seems odd to me. They may ultimately argue the property law issue but if that was their strategy, they certainly didn’t make it clear in this claim.

John Fendersonsays:

Re: Re:

OK, but if we frame it as a property law issue, then they can’t actually sue the family for anything except possession of the statue. The family is not obligated to make the offer to the studio, the estate is. That the estate failed to do so would be an error, but one that would be corrected by suing the estate itself, not the family. It seems to me the largest penalty the family could incur would be an order to relinquish possession of the statue.

mattshowsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The argument would go: The estate didn’t have the right to dispose of the statute without first giving the Academy the right of first refusal. So when they purported to transfer possession of the statute to the heirs, no actual rights to the statute were transferred. Then when the family disposed of the statute, without having any rights to it, there’s a conversion claim there.

Besides, maybe an order for possession of the statute is all they want. If you look at the prayer for relief, one of the things they ask for is a chance to buy the statue for $10. To me, that means their real goal in this lawsuit is not getting money but recovering the statute.

John Fendersonsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

“So when they purported to transfer possession of the statute to the heirs, no actual rights to the statute were transferred”

Right, which would mean that the sole liability of the heirs would be that they have to fork over the statue. There would be no basis for monetary penalties of any sort from them.

mattshowsays:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

I guess that should say “IF the heir sold something they didn’t have the right to sell”. The claim doesn’t seem too sure about what exactly happened to the statute, and I’m not saying my argument is absolutely watertight. I just think that there’s enough going on here that we can’t just throw our hands up and say “PRIVITY OF CONTRACT” and be done with it.

mattshowsays:

Actually, the bylaws state it cannot be “disposed of”, even by operation of law, so there’s even an argument to be made that the Academy should have been offered the chance to purchase the statue even before it passed on to his heirs.

I’m not saying its definitely a winning argument, but it seems more plausible to me than this breach of contract approach.

DogBreathsays:

Re: Re:

Yes, “Bylaws” that only an actual member of the Academy are subject to.

Now if the Academy would somehow offer and trick the inheritor of this Oscar into signing up with the Academy, they might have a case.

But, as far as I know, Carol Surtees is not a member of the Academy, so the Academy can go suck rotten eggs.

mattshowsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’d argue that the bylaws create a limit on the rights that were transferred to the original recipient. It’s not a matter of being bound by a contract; it’s a matter of only being able to pass on the rights that you have. He only ever had the right to dispose of the statute AFTER giving the Academy a chance to buy it back. When he died and it transferred to his heirs, they inherited those same rights. It’s a matter of property rights, not contractual obligations.

Or so I’d argue if it was my case.

DogBreathsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

He didn’t dispose of the statue, death disposed of him, thus nullifying any contract alleging he only had the rights to sell it back to the Academy. Just the nature of the statement: “Selling it back to the Academy”, implies the Academy no longer owned the statue. Otherwise they could just take it back after his death, because it was always their property and never really his.

Perhaps the Academy should create a OOA (Oscar Owners Association) and attach the Oscar (physically) to a piece of property subject to an HOA (Deed), thereby granting the Academy the property rights to all fixtures in said property as defined by law (not just bylaws).

Unless they want to lobby(bribe) congress to create them an exemption/property extension/special law for Oscar awards. Hey, it worked for Mickey Mouse and Copyright, why not Oscars.

DogBreathsays:

Re: Re:

10. Academy Award winners have no rights whatsoever in the Academy copyright or goodwill in the Oscar statuette or in its trademark and service mark registrations. Award winners must comply with these rules and regulations. Award winners shall not sell or otherwise dispose of the Oscar statuette, nor permit it to be sold or disposed of by operation of law, without first offering to sell it to the Academy for the sum of $1.00. This provision shall apply also to the heirs and assigns of Academy Award winners who may acquire a statuette by gift or bequest.

No matter what the “Academy” says, the inheritor of this item cannot be bound to a contract they never agreed to.

It would make more legal sense for the “Academy” to lease ( with no subleasing rights) the Oscar statue to the original awardee ($1 per year sounds reasonable), thereby retaining all rights to said property because they are still the owner, and have the right of repossession should such lease contract be broken.

This would also allow them to report the Oscar as stolen if it was ever sold. But that might make the Academy seem too evil and money grubbing and even rise to “Olympic Commitee” levels of control freakishness.

Who are we kidding? I say, “Go for it Academy Awards. Take it all the way, and as god is your witness, you’ll never go hungry again. Now eat your withered carrot and be happy.”

DogBreathsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

According to this, it was the following:

The Contract:

Although a difficult concept to grasp today, some finacially struggling award recipients began to pawn or sell their awards in the 1940’s. This troubled the Academy as it risked the stature of the Award becoming commercially exploited. There was also a concern over control of the closely gaurded copyright. As a result, in 1950 the Academy introduced a contractual agreement that all recipiants to this day must enter into upon being bestowed with the coveted trophy. The contract stipulates that should the Award winner or heirs wish to sell the award, (as the award may be passed down) they must offer the Academy first right to purchase the statuette back for the sum of ten dollars. In the 1980’s the monetary figure was lowered to one dollar. The monetary figures of course had nothing to do with Oscars actual worth. This was more or less a legal formality insuring Oscar was in a sense “donated” back to the Academy for preservation. This agreement also addressed the concern over Oscars Stature becoming commercially cheapened.

This was also found on the same link as above:

In 2007 after four years of legal antics, the Oscar that Orson Welles won for co-writing “Citizen Kane” was allowed to be placed up for auction. Sotheby’s put it up for auction on Dec. 11 2007.

Christie’s Auction House tried to sell the Oscar in 2003, but had to stop the auction due to intervention by academy lawyers. There should no have been any disaproval of the sale. Since Welles won the award in 1941, thus it fell outside the post 1950 agreement that banned winners from selling their Oscars to anyone but the academy for the sum of $1).

Welles’ Oscar was thought to have been lost, but surfaced in 1994 when it was put up for auction by Sotheby’s. Evidently a cinematographer claimed that Welles had given him the Oscar as form of payment for work. Welles’ youngest daughter Beatrice sued and got ownership of the Oscar, which she tried to sell at Christie’s 9 years later, but in turn got sued by the academy.

The academy’s legal claim was his daughter couldn’t sell it due to a agreement she signed in the 1980s when the Academy issued a replacement Oscar before the original surfaced. The agreement stated that the person who signed the contract agreed never to sell the replacement statuette or the original, if it ever resurfaced.

When the case finally reached the court Welles’ daughter won due to the language in the agreement. The agreemet only applied to members of the academy and she was not an academy member. She also retained the right to sell the lifetime achievement Oscar her father received in 1970.

The Oscar however failed to draw suitable bids and thus was not sold. It is beleived an attempt to sell the Oscar privately will be made.

Tanner Andrewssays:

Right of First Refusal

It is possible that the right of first refusal may have been lost when the academy did not exercise it at time of the original probate. Assuming always correct publication of notice and a hundred other things, most of which are covered by California law with which I am entirely unfamiliar.

At any rate, I’d prefer to have the heir’s case if I had to choose.

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