Californian courts feasting on Babette’s scraps

Director claims ownership of his Oscar-winning film ‘Babette’s Feast’ – a claim that is hotly disputed by the production company with plans to release it on DVD and blu-ray on July 23


In a quickly escalating dispute regarding the ownership rights of a widely-acclaimed, Oscar-winning Danish film, two sides are fighting like children in a playground over who gets the pretty girl. Her name is Babette.

The 1987 film ‘Babette’s Feast’ was written and directed by Denmark’s Gabriel Axel, and it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film − the first of just three Danish films to do so. Lauded at the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes and the Cannes Film Festival, it is one of Denmark’s premier exports in cinema, but now the feast has turned sour.

In a lawsuit filed just last week, Axel claims to own all the rights to the movie − a claim that he has never voiced until now. It is nearly two years since Josi Konski, a Cuban film producer who claims that he is the rightful owner, struck a deal with Janus Films to re-release ‘Babette’s Feast’ under the coveted Criterion Collection seal. 

But last year, the association of Danish film directors, Danske Filminstruktører, an interest group that negotiates for its members − one of whom happens to be Axel − made a request on behalf of Axel for 15 percent of Konski’s gross income from the film.

“As a director and/or scriptwriter, you are the author of your work […], according to the copyright law,” states the Danske Filminstruktører website. “This means that you, in addition to your salary, are entitled to receive various secondary earnings for the use of your work.”

Axel’s ownership and entitlement was news to Konski, the president of the film and television distributor Astrablu Media, who claims he acquired the rights to ‘Babette’s Feast’ in 2007 directly from the producer Panorama, which led to necessary copyright rearrangements in compliance with United States laws. Konski purchased, according to his lawsuit, “all personal assets, rights, projects and all intellectual property rights in all forms” − including, of course, ‘Babette’s Feast’. 

Konski last year claimed he had no legal obligations towards the film’s director and accordingly refused Axel’s request and called his claims baseless and lacking in evidence. And it is believed that Danske Filminstruktører had hit a wall trying to conjure up the necessary proof to show Axel deserved his due, which put all argumentation on hold.

Until recently, that is. On March 21, Danske Filminstruktører contacted Janus Films directly, “making the false assertion, for the first time, that neither Konski nor Astrablu own any copyright interest in ‘Babette’s Feast’”, according to Konski’s lawsuit.

When asked to clarify its claim, Danske Filminstruktører explained in vague technical detail that Konski had no ownership of the film due to a caveat in copyright laws, which stipulates that, although the film’s copyright may switch hands, any alteration to the work is impermissible unless it is “usual or obviously presumed” − an argument many call ‘moral rights’.

The sole question of ‘alteration’ is, in this case, a re-release of the film on DVD and blu-ray, hardly something unusual and in breach of the cited caveat. The Criterion Collection is set to release ‘Babette’s Feast’ on DVD and blu-ray on July 23 this summer − perhaps it hopes to save face in the midst of this messy dispute. 

In the meantime, it looks like both sides have worked up quite an appetite.

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