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Who sucker-punched Mickey Mouse? Roger Rabbit, that’s who. Well, actually it was Roger’s creator, Gary Wolf, whose 1981 book “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?” became a huge hit seven years later as Walt Disney Pictures & Television’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Wolf nailed the Mouse on Wednesday, when Los Angeles’ Second District Court of Appeal ruled that he might be entitled to royalties on several promotional agreements that Disney signed for the movie, which grossed nearly $350 million worldwide. Those could include lucrative contracts with The Coca-Cola Co., Eastman Kodak Co., Burger King Co. and McDonald’s Corp., the latter of which had product tie-ins with not only the 1988 movie, but also through a Happy Meal agreement for Disneyland’s 40th anniversary in 1995. The two sides knocked heads when Wolf contended he was due 5 percent of the gross receipts on all such deals, while Disney argued he was entitled to only those in which it received cash. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mary Ann Murphy backed Disney, but the Second District Court of Appeal ruled that within the entertainment industry, “gross receipts” could mean more than cash only. “Even if a contract appears unambiguous on its face,” Justice Earl Johnson Jr. wrote, “a latent ambiguity may be exposed by extrinsic evidence which reveals more than one possible meaning to which the language of the contract is yet reasonably susceptible.” Justices Dennis Perluss and Fred Woods concurred in the opinion. The case now goes back to the trial court to determine the proper meaning of the term gross receipts. Disney first contacted Wolf almost immediately after the publication of his book, in which human and cartoon characters co-exist. The plot centers on private eye Eddie Valiant’s search for the killer of the popular animated character Roger Rabbit in the world of Toontown. When Disney exercised its option to purchase the rights to Wolf’s book, the company changed much of the plot — keeping Roger alive for one — and threw in well-known characters such as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. Disney agreed to a 5 percent royalty for Wolf on children’s books, records and merchandise. Wolf’s lawyers, J. Larson Jaenicke and Robert Hodges, partners at L.A.’s Rintala, Smoot, Jaenicke & Rees, could not be reached for comment. Disney’s counsel, Martin Katz, a partner at L.A.’s Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, said Disney will win at trial. “The court of appeal’s ruling was of a technical nature. They’re really only sending the matter back to the trial court,” Katz said. “It’s more a case that will force parties to spend additional resources before coming to the same result.” According to Wednesday’s ruling, Wolf’s case was greatly aided by the expert testimony of Los Angeles lawyer David Held, who in 30 years with the motion picture industry has worked with United Artists Corp., Paramount Pictures Corp. and the Samuel Goldwyn Co. “Held stated,” Justice Johnson wrote, “from the start of his career until the present, the term ‘gross receipts’ in the entertainment industry ‘means the total amount of money or the value of other consideration received by the studio’ when not otherwise specifically defined to limit the term’s meaning.” The court also took note of Wolf’s use of Black’s Law Dictionary, which defines “gross receipts” as “the total amount of money or the value of other consideration received from selling property or from performing services.” It should be a good night at the Rabbit residence. Not so hot at the Mouse house. The ruling is Wolf v. Superior Court (Walt Disney Pictures and Television), 04 C.D.O.S. 508.

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