A cryptocurrency-backed consortium that paid £2.2m – 100 times the estimate – for concept art for an unmade film adaptation of Dune has claimed that their animated version has gone into development despite questions over copyright.
The group, called Spice DAO, caused a flurry of excitement on social media when it announced last weekend that it had bought the book of art, created by director Alejandro Jodorowsky in the 1970s, at auction in November and planned to “make the book public (to the extent permitted by law)” and, more ambitiously, to “produce an original animated limited series inspired by the book and sell it to a streaming service”.
However, as many people pointed out in the thousands of replies to Saturday’s Twitter post, ownership of a copy of a book, no matter how much was paid for it, does not confer any intellectual property rights to either distribute copies of it or to adapt it into another medium.
The announcement was roundly dismissed as a stunt by social media users who suspect Spice DAO’s ultimate plan is to sell the individual pages from the book as NFTs – digital images with ownership rights – especially as there was speculation on a Spice DAO internet forum that the physical book could be burned as a publicity stunt after the NFTs have sold.
While the book did indeed sell at Christie’s in Paris for €2.6m on 21 November, Spice DAO have offered no actual proof that they are the purchasers, nor explained why the price paid was so astronomical when the auction house had put a €25,000-35-000 estimate on it. It has been reported that Spice DAO’s co-founder, millionaire Soban Saqib, put up the bulk of the purchase fee from his own funds after raising $750,000 (£550,000) from the consortium’s members.
Adrien Legendre, of the books department of Christie’s in Paris, told the Guardian that the book came from the private collection of an individual and that bids were taken on the day from the room, by phone and online – where the winning bid came from, which Legendre was not at liberty to discuss. As to the surprising price the book realised, Legendre said that the estimate was based on “previous sale results, reflecting the appetite and market for the object and the context”.
In a Medium post on Thursday, Spice DAO seemed to concede that they did not have any rights to adapt Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel – and instead were ploughing ahead with creating an original animated series.
The post reads: “After two months of outreach, conversations with former business partners and consultations with legal counsel we have not been able to reach an agreement with any of the rights holders involved in the creation of the contents of the book of collected storyboards of Jodorowsky’s Dune.
“Our research over the past two months has only increased our respect for their project and we were so inspired by the book and learning more about its creation that we saw how we could develop our own intellectual property that we own 100% and control all aspects of the production of an original animated limited series.
Spice DAO claims are in the development phase and have a “whirlwind week of meetings” coming up with writers, producers, three Los Angeles animation studios, graphic novel publishers, and the “entertainment attorney for Drake” – presumably the Canadian-born rapper.
Kirsty Stewart, legal director and trademark attorney in the Dundee office of law firm Thorntons, wrote on the company’s site: “Unfortunately for Spice DOA, the collective who purchased the Jodorowsky Dune bible, Frank Herbert died in 1986, meaning copyright persists in the base text of Dune until at least 2056. Similarly, the book they purchased, as it was produced to sell the idea to studios at the time, is likely protected by copyright until at least 2092, as Jodorowsky, one of the authors of the book, remains alive.
“As such, in order to produce or authorise derivative works such as an animated series, Spice DOA would need to obtain licenses from the Herbert estate, as well as potentially Jodorowsky (and any other authors such as Michel Seydoux) if the adaptation was based on the Jodorowsky book. Similar to how buying a Batman comic does not give you the inherent rights to produce a new Batman film, the purchasing of this director’s bible does not give Spice DOA any intrinsic rights to produce new material.”
French-Chilean director Jodorowsky acquired the film rights to Dune in 1974, and envisaged an epic topping 15 hours. Jodorowsky engaged a trio of comic book and science fiction artists – Jean Giraud, known as Moebius; Chris Foss, a British illustrator famous for his science fiction novel covers; and Swiss artist HR Giger, who would later become known for his concept work on the Alien movies – to design the look and feel of his projected adaptation.
They failed to get financial backing from the studios, though, and the project died, its only legacy being the concept art books that Jodorowsky produced – of which Christie’s say only around 10 survive.
The lot sold in November was described by Christie’s as “oblong octavo (210 x 295 mm). 11 colour plates, after drawings by Christopher Foss, Jean Giraud-Moebius and HR Giger, one title-page, 268 black and white plates, mostly the storyboard for the movie, with dialogues in French and English, and some studies for characters, environments and vehicles, one page with the printer’s name and address. All the plates are photographic reproductions, printed single-side.”
It has been pointed out on social media that many of the pages of the rare book are already available online.
Spice DAO were contacted via their Twitter account and after initially seeming amenable to conversation, blocked this writer after being asked: “How do you propose to adapt a book that you don’t have the rights for and get a streaming service to take it? Or is this more about selling the pages as NFTs?”