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Last Updated: Monday, 16 June, 2003, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
Battle over classic Russian cartoons
Oleg Vidov
Oleg Vidov was a film star in the USSR in the 1960s
A US film company has hit out at a Russian animation studio that is trying to win back the global rights to Soviet-era cartoons.

The animations were the staple of Soviet cinema houses during the Soviet era, constructed with painstaking time and care.

Appealing both to children and adults, they were the Soviet answer to Snow White and Mickey Mouse - and one was even named the best animation ever.

But the catalogue of Soviet cartoons has been at the centre of a legal battle lasting four years, and which shows few signs of ending.

On one side are Californian company Films By Jove, who bought the global rights to the entire library of Soviet state animation studio Soyuzmultfilm in 1992 after the fall of communism.

Hedgehog in the Fog
Some of Films by Jove's collection include Hedgehog in the Fog
On the other are Soyuzmultfilm - or a later incarnation of the company - who say Films By Jove signed their $500,000 (300,000) 30-year contract with the wrong people.

Films By Jove, founded by former Russian screen star Oleg Vidov who defected to the US in 1985, gave most of the library back in 1994 and set to work on restoring and marketing the rest.

The films were "scratched, bleached, ripped down the middle and held together with Scotch tape" when they got them, according to Joan Borsten-Vidov, Vidov's wife and Films By Jove president.

Some cost $10,000 (6,000) per frame to restore, but the toil appeared to pay off as they slowly got noticed outside the Eastern Bloc.

Tale of Tales
Tale of Tales is one of Films by Jove's best titles
Charlton Heston, Bill Murray, Timothy Dalton and Kathleen Turner were among the stars recruited to voice the English-language versions.

One of the most popular series, Mikhail Baryshnikov's Stories From My Childhood, was aired on PBS and the Bravo Channel among others.

"We took animation that was rarely seen anywhere and digitally restored it so that it could compete in the rest of the world," Mrs Borsten Vidov told BBC News Online.

"And now it's in hundreds of millions of homes."

But that was when the trouble started, according to Mrs Borsten-Vidov.

When the cartoons became popular around the world, the Russian Government realised how much they were worth, she said.

Hedgehog in the Fog
Hedgehog in the Fog also features a dog
And Films By Jove say the government set out to get them back with no compensation for the time and money spent on restoration.

The case centres on complex and contradictory arguments over who owned the rights in the first place.

At the end of the Soviet era, state-owned companies transformed into semi-commercial enterprises - and Soyuzmultfilm was no different.

But in 1999, the Russian Government claimed that the private company was not the legal owner of the rights, creating a new studio, also called Soyuzmultfilm, in its place.

A string of court cases followed in both Russia and the US.

'Rule of law'

In August 2001, the US Federal Court found that Films By Jove had leased the rights from the right people.

But four months later, the Russian High Court sided with the government. Films By Jove allege that the Russian cases were clouded by corruption.

Back in the US this April, the Federal Court upheld its original decision - giving Films By Jove all the legitimacy they said they needed to continue work "in any country based on rule of law".

"And they are the markets that you want to be in," Mrs Borsten-Vidov said.

She said Soyuzmultfilm agreed to abide by the US judge's decision - but went back on their word by dragging the case back to the Moscow Arbitration Court.


Soyuzmultfilm officials appeared at a recent press conference saying the US firm failed to respond to a summons to appear in court on 28 May.

But Mrs Borsten-Vidov said they were never informed of the hearing.

"Are we supposed to go through the streets of Moscow going 'Hello, are we being sued here? Does anyone want to tell us about it?'"

It is very messy and has left Films By Jove embittered about doing business in the former Soviet state.

Mrs Borsten-Vidov said the country was not ready to do business with the rest of the world.

"On one hand, they're crying because they don't have enough foreign investment. On the other hand, they are not even enforcing foreign arbitration decisions," she said.

The company's bill for film restoration and legal costs now runs to $4m (2.4m), she said - but has vowed to continue showing the films around the world.

"We killed ourselves to bring them back to the level they were when they first came out, and to put them in a position where they could compete with other films on the market," she said.

"And this is our thanks. We invested based on a contract that goes for another 20 years. Would you just walk away?"

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