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The rights to Seven samurai

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    Gudmundur Erlingsson

    Hi,

    I’ve been trying to find some info on who owns the rights to Seven samurai. I’m working with an theatre group that is interested in staging an open air theatre version of the story, but it is proving a bit difficult to find out who actually owns the rights. We have contacted Kurosawa Productions in Japan, and while they were very positive, they didn’t have the rights. Splendant Media doesn’t seem to have acquired the rights to Seven samurai. Does anyone know more, or can possibly point us in the right direction. Toho, perhaps?

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    Vili Maunula

    Hi Gudmundur!

    Interesting. I would have thought that Kurosawa Productions at least know whom to contact for stage adaptation rights. But if not, I would indeed try contacting Toho.

    You could also consider sending an email to David Gaines, who tours with a one man mime adaptation of Seven Samurai. Perhaps he might be able to help. You can find his website at davidgainesperformance.com.

    There was also a recent production of Throne of Blood in New York by Ping Chong’s theatre company. Maybe they know something that could help you. See pingchong.org for contact details.

    I hope this helps!

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    Ugetsu

    I would imagine Criterion might be able to help too, I assume they have some rights as they’ve done most of the work to upgrade the prints. On my Criterion copy it says ‘Under exclusive license from Toho International Co. Ltd 1954 (c)Toho Co. Ltd.

    I would guess that if you’ve made a reasonable attempt to find out from Kurosawa Productions and Toho and nobody has objected, it is unlikely anyone could object or claim royalties. After all, numerous films, games and other creative projects have riffed off Seven Samurai, I assume the majority haven’t bothered too much with getting the rights.

    It does sound an intriguing project – my first thought is that it is far to sprawling to be workable as theatre, but Vili’s link to that one man show (looks fantastic!) shows it can be done. So good luck with it, I hope it works!

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    Ugetsu

    Actually, reading through the booklet with my Criterion copy, it seems all the licensing, including stills reproduced on the cover, is owned by Toho International.

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    Vili Maunula

    I suddenly remembered that there actually were a couple of lawsuits about Seven Samurai ownership, and so I dug into the available Kurosawa literature for more information. Most of the following comes from Stuart Galbraith IV’s Kurosawa biography (especially page 196).

    The writers of Seven Samurai — Kurosawa, Oguni and Hashimoto — sued Toho in the 1970s as they had not received any payment for the American remake The Magnificent Seven. In 1978, the Tokyo District Court agreed with them, declaring that the writers owned the remake rights, and that MGM (the producer of The Magnificent Seven should also compensate the three writers).

    In 1991, MGM in turn sued Toho and Kurosawa Production, probably to test the waters for the planned Magnificent Seven TV series, which ultimately ran from 1997 to 2000. The lawsuit was settled out of court, with Kurosawa and the other writers retaining ownership to the copyright and all other rights to the screenplay, including remake and sequel rights — with the exception of the western genre, where MGM has the right to produce remakes and sequels.

    With this in mind, Kurosawa Productions should really have the rights, or at least Kurosawa’s part of the rights. However, this is probably complicated by a couple of things:

    1) DesignEXchange Co, which purchased rights to Kurosawa screenplays in 2007, went bankrupt in 2011. I never found out what exactly happened to the screenplay rights.

    2) There were reports that the American company Splendent Media had acquired all remake rights following DesignEXchange’s collapse. However, there was confusion about this, and the Splendent Media homepage now simply states that they are “not the exclusive representative of remake rights to works of Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa Productions, owner of the remake rights, looks forward to working with Splendent to promote production of remakes on a project by project basis.”

    3) Thirdly, the Weinstein Company is currently producing a Seven Samurai remake, which I think is licensed. Depending on their contract, their adaptation license may block other new adaptations and/or remakes, or they may have some say in what currently gets licensed. Or that’s my guess based on experience, but it may well also be the case that the Weinstein production has nothing to do with Seven Samurai licensing.

    4) And there is also a new Magnificent Seven remake on its way.

    All in all, it’s probably complicated. But I’m surprised if Kurosawa Productions doesn’t know whom to contact.

    Ugetsu: I would guess that if you’ve made a reasonable attempt to find out from Kurosawa Productions and Toho and nobody has objected, it is unlikely anyone could object or claim royalties.

    As a literary agent (who actually happens to work primarily with theatre licensing), I can say that this is definitely not the case. I’m sure Gudmundur knows this, but one should never ever ever ever stage anything without having acquired the proper rights to do so. I have had the displeasure of dealing with a number of cases where this has happened, and it is always a pain for everyone involved. If you can’t clear the rights, it’s always better to produce something else.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    As a literary agent (who actually happens to work primarily with theatre licensing), I can say that this is definitely not the case.

    Quite right, yes, I shouldn’t have said that. I remember from years ago a copyright troll making life very difficult for a university theatre group I was involved with a while back.

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    Gudmundur Erlingsson

    Thank you all for your good responses. I now have some leads to follow, thanks to you ­čÖé

    Vili:

    You’re quite right, even though this is an amateur group and the production will be a non-profit one, the same rules apply. And being a non-profit amateur theatre group an legal wranglings might cost us dearly.

    I’ll keep you posted about what we’ll find out.

    Again, thank you all.

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    Vili Maunula

    It would be great if you can share what you find out about the rights! I actually get questions similar to yours pretty often, and the more we know, the better we can help!

    And of course, if you successfully license the rights and have a production open, we’d be more than happy to see pictures or video clips! ­čÖé Good luck with the project!

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