Beloved by fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 but unknown to the rest of the world, horror film Manos: The Hands of Fate is often considered the worst commercially released movie ever made. Nearly everything about the movie is a disaster, most famously the bizarre characterization and knee-heavy costuming of the evil henchman Torgo (pictured). Joel Hodgson described it as a movie where “every frame […] looks like someone’s last known photo.”
Manos was recently re-released on Blu-ray, but as explained by Jonathan Bailey in Plagiarism Today, it might become the center of a landmark copyright battle. The producer of Manos neglected to copyright the film, leaving it in the public domain, but he did copyright the script before production. His son, inheritor of those rights, has threatened legal action – but no case has ever legally tested whether script ownership constitutes ownership of a public domain film. Bailey notes that similar cases have come up in the past, such as when story and soundtrack rights helped maintain control of It’s a Wonderful Life, but Manos‘s case is far trickier.
(An interloper completely unrelated to the film’s production has attempted to claim distribution rights, but that’s a separate dispute.)
These specific ownership circumstances rarely happen, as proven by how this has never been tested. The answers could be a big moment for film copyright law, but Bailey sees little reason why such a thorny battle would end up in court given Manos‘s extremely low profile and revenue.
But we hope it does, if only so Manos can sneak into legal textbooks. Master would be pleased!