Is Found to Have Violated Copyright Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In one of the earliest cases of copyright infringement involving a film adaptation, the estate of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, successfully sued the German producer of the macabre film Nosferatu (1922), a classic of German expressionism. The film’s production company declared bankruptcy, so was unable to pay damages, but the court ordered the destruction of all prints of the film—a scandal in itself—which set a precedent for protecting literary properties. However, some prints survived.

Summary of Event

In July, 1925, a German court delivered a significant ruling in favor of Florence Stoker, widow and literary executor of Irish writer Bram Stoker, who had died in 1912. The court found that in adapting Bram Stoker’s supernatural novel Dracula (1897) without permission, a German film production company had infringed upon the right of his estate to control adaptations of his works. [kw]Nosferatu Is Found to Have Violated Dracula Copyright (July, 1925) [kw]Dracula Copyright, Nosferatu Is Found to Have Violated (July, 1925) Nosferatu (film) Dracula (novel) Stoker, Bram Stoker, Florence Nosferatu (film) Dracula (novel) Stoker, Bram Stoker, Florence [g]Europe;July, 1925: Nosferatu Is Found to Have Violated Dracula Copyright[00370] [g]England;July, 1925: Nosferatu Is Found to Have Violated Dracula Copyright[00370] [g]Germany;July, 1925: Nosferatu Is Found to Have Violated Dracula Copyright[00370] [c]Law and the courts;July, 1925: Nosferatu Is Found to Have Violated Dracula Copyright[00370] [c]Film;July, 1925: Nosferatu Is Found to Have Violated Dracula Copyright[00370] [c]Literature;July, 1925: Nosferatu Is Found to Have Violated Dracula Copyright[00370] Grau, Albin Galeen, Henrik Thring, G. Herbert Murnau, F. W. Wronker-Flatow, Manfred

A still photograph from the film Nosferatu (1922).

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The film, Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: a symphony of horror), had opened with a gala premiere at the Marble Hall of the Berlin Zoological Gardens in Germany on Saturday, March 4, 1922. It was the first production of a new company known as Prana-Film, whose codirector, Albin Grau, was deeply interested in the occult. The script was written by Henrik Galeen, whose credits included several other macabre films. The film was directed by F. W. Murnau, a rising figure in German cinema.

As its credits clearly acknowledged, the film was based on the novel Dracula, although Prana-Film had made no attempt to negotiate rights with Stoker’s estate. Galeen had altered the characters’ names, with Count Dracula, for example, becoming Graf Orlok. He also changed the work’s primary setting from England to Germany and pruned away many of Stoker’s characters and subplots. Nevertheless, the film script followed the novel closely, with the only significant thematic change coming in its resolution. The title was taken from a term that Stoker mistakenly believed to be an Eastern European word for “vampire.”

At the time of the film’s production, Stoker’s widow, Florence, had been living in straitened circumstances in the London, England, suburb of Knightsbridge. She learned of the film’s existence the month following its premiere when an anonymous correspondent mailed her the film’s program. Most of her husband’s books were out of print, and even Dracula, recognized in later decades as one of the most important supernatural novels ever written, brought in few royalties. Acting as her husband’s literary executor, she promptly joined the Society of Authors, a British organization dedicated to aiding writers in their business and legal affairs, and enlisted its help.

The Nosferatu controversy, later chronicled by scholar David J. Skal and others, was the start of a long and convoluted campaign, with Florence Stoker eventually mailing as many as half a dozen letters a month to the society. The society’s secretary, G. Herbert Thring, over the following years would act as intermediary between Stoker and the society’s governing committee. After reviewing the situation, the committee hired a Berlin-based lawyer, Manfred Wronker-Flatow, to pursue the case against Prana-Film. The society hoped to settle on Stoker’s behalf quickly and out of court, but by midyear the profligate company had already gone bankrupt and was in receivership. Nosferatu had been its only film, and according to contemporary press reports, the company had spent more money publicizing than producing the film.

The society, however, become reluctant to proceed, so Stoker redoubled her efforts. She approached longtime friends in the publishing business, such as William Heinemann, to apply pressure to the society, and she even attended one of its annual dinners in the company of her accountant-son, Noel. With reservations, the society agreed to carry on. Prana-Film’s receivers, Deutsch-Amerikanische Film-Union, offered Stoker a share of the film’s profits if she allowed them to show the film in the English-speaking world with the title Dracula. Following the society’s advice, Stoker rejected the offer as unlikely to be of much value.

A hearing finally was held in Berlin in late March, 1924, and the case began in May. Two months later, authorities ruled in favor of Stoker. Now, Stoker offered to sell the receivers the rights to the novel for five thousand pounds, but they appealed the ruling instead, resulting in further delay. The receivers lost their appeal early the following year, and in July, 1925, they were ordered to destroy the film’s negative and all prints. Although it was not necessarily considered scandalous at the time to destroy a film, the destruction of an artistic creation in the name of legal propriety was considered scandalous in later years, especially by artists, film preservationists, scholars, and film aficionados.

Stoker and the Society of Authors had secured a favorable legal ruling at last, but it seems to have had no practical effect. As early as 1922, Stoker had learned of showings of Nosferatu in Budapest, Hungary, and Paris, France. A British firm had planned a showing that same year, but the company was refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Censors because of the film’s sensational subject matter and because the issue of copyright had been sidestepped. A few months after her legal victory, however, Stoker realized that the ruling to destroy all copies of the film had not been carried out. In October, the newly formed London Film Society, which was dedicated to the study and preservation of motion pictures, announced a Sunday afternoon showing of the troublesome film, now billed as Dracula.

Again, Stoker pushed the Society of Authors into action, but this time its efforts were less successful. Although it was determined that the print for the planned showing had been purchased in Germany, it proved impossible to trace the exact source. In any case, the London Film Society’s showing was canceled. With undoubtedly great relief, Thring informed Stoker in January, 1926, that the society was withdrawing from the case.

Nosferatu, though, refused to go away. The London Film Society scheduled another screening of the film on December 16, 1928, at the New Gallery Kinema in London. The indefatigable Stoker again instituted legal proceedings, and although she was unable to stop the screening, the print for this showing apparently was burned in 1929. Other prints clearly existed, however: Two months later the film received its American premiere at the Film Guild Cinema in Greenwich Village, New York. For all her perseverance, Stoker’s triumph had been a hollow one.

Impact

The scandal that ensued over the Nosferatu case had its legal beginnings with the 1886 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, and subsequent revisions, which asserted the right of creators of literary and artistic material to control reproduction of that material, including adaptations. The convention was international in scope and included Germany and Great Britain among its original signatories. The individuals connected with Prana-Film were aware of the general requirements of the convention and altered the particulars of Stoker’s novel accordingly. They may have believed that their alterations were legally adequate, or they may simply have assumed that news of their adaptation would never reach Britain.

Furthermore, the Society of Authors clearly found its relationship with Florence Stoker trying, particularly as the months went by, and reminded her on several occasions that it had obligations to members of longer standing. However, the group persevered because it realized that film adaptations could come to represent an important source of income to writers.

Despite the legal significance of the court decision, later generations of film lovers have been grateful that copies of Nosferatu survived. The film is now recognized as a key work of German expressionism and is generally regarded as the most successful cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. Nosferatu (film) Dracula (novel) Stoker, Bram Stoker, Florence

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ashbury, Roy. “Nosferatu”: Director, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. London: York Press, 2001. Short but thorough work discussing every aspect of the film, including its production history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Belford, Barbara. Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of “Dracula.” New York: Alfred Knopf, 1996. Makes extensive use of unpublished letters and other archival material, and includes a handy summary of Florence Stoker’s actions regarding Nosferatu. Illustrations, select bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eisner, Lotte H. Murnau. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. Includes a discussion of the work of screenwriter Henrik Galeen, an analysis of the discrepancies in early versions of Nosferatu, and a transcription of Murnau’s own annotated shooting script. Illustrations, filmography, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patalas, Enno. “On the Way to Nosferatu.” Film History 14, no. 1 (January, 2002): 25-31. Analysis of discrepancies among early versions of the film and an evaluation of releases available to modern viewers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skal, David J. Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of “Dracula” from Novel to Stage to Screen. Rev. ed. New York: Faber & Faber, 2004. Offers a detailed history of the Nosferatu episode. Illustrations, bibliography.

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