Acorn Productions head of legal and business affairs: Man of mystery
2 September 2013 | By Joanne Harris
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Leo Dezoysa, legal boss at the company that holds the rights to Agatha Christie’s works, finds it very strange that more law students don’t plump for the in-house life
There are few genuine mysteries in the legal market, but Leo Dezoysa believes one of them is why law students are funnelled towards a career in private practice without being told of opportunities in-house.
Dezoysa, who is eight months into the role of head of legal for the company that owns the rights to the works of legendary crime writer Agatha Christie, has not yet, Poirot-like, cracked the mystery. But he is a good role model for those who find that the world of the law firm is not for them.
Dezoysa joined Acorn Productions in February this year. Although he trained in private practice at RPC he moved in-house immediately upon qualification to join beauty pageant company Miss World as the company’s first in-house lawyer.
Some three years later Dezoysa moved on to another brand-new role at Acorn.
The company was only created in 2012 when media company Chorion sold its 64 per cent stake in the Agatha Christie estate. Later that year parent Acorn Media Group was bought by US company RLJ Entertainment. Chorion general counsel Hilary Strong became managing director of Acorn Productions, providing Dezoysa with an additional legal brain to pick when necessary.
Acorn Productions is a small company, with around 15 people working in its Covent Garden office. A further 20 people work for Acorn Media UK in its direct sales team. The bijou size of the UK business means Dezoysa is closely involved with anything that has a legal slant, including the negotiation of all contracts, licensing and IP issues.
“I’ve got a very commercial element to my job as I am heavily involved in negotiating and finalising all our deals across a wide range of media platforms,” he says.
Although Christie died in 1976 after a lifetime of writing, there is plenty of work to be done with her novels. New editions, film and TV adaptations, and now e-books, social media and even games are all ways of exploiting the rights Acorn holds – the majority of Christie’s works with a few exceptions, notably the West End’s longest-running musical, The Mousetrap. There is also the promotion of Christie’s novels overseas. Dezoysa says Brazil is a great example.
“In Brazil the novels really appeal to the young adult market and are phenomenally popular,” he says. “It’s the way that Agatha Christie wrote. Her works have a timeless quality that can transcend generational and cultural barriers.”
Lessons from history
This has always been the case. Back in the 1920s, when Christie’s works were first published, they were sent to far-flung parts of the British Empire. Dezoysa says this has been one of the most fascinating discoveries of his job.
“Agatha Christie’s debut novel was first published in 1920,” he explains. “The language in old contracts takes a bit of unpicking. It’s been interesting from a historical point of view looking at contracts that were drafted in the past and seeing how things have changed.
“IP licences didn’t vary that much for several decades up to the 1970s, but since then there’s been a real explosion. The difference between a contract that would have been drafted in the late 1990s and now is huge,” he adds, suggesting digital media and the internet are largely responsible.
The internet is also a factor driving a major task for Dezoysa right now – the protection of trade marks and the issue of copyright and licensing. Although Christie’s novels are still protected by copyright in the UK and many other countries until January 2047, 70 years after her death, in other countries copyright runs out sooner. Dezoysa is a strong backer of harmonising regulation for copyright.
“When you don’t have harmony across IP standards worldwide it creates problems,” he says. “It’s an issue the industry needs to tackle. As territorial borders are falling away in this digital age we need to revisit how we look at them.”
In the meantime, Acorn takes a pragmatic view of protection of its copyright and trade marks. Dezoysa says the company will pursue those infringing copyright, whether or not this moves beyond a cease-and-desist letter and agreeing a licence fee to litigation.
“With all these things we’ve got to make sound decisions based on commercial judgement,” he says.
Dezoysa, working alongside Strong and rights manager Eva Kelly as well as one member of support staff, does much of the legal work for Acorn in-house, but will turn to external advisers where needed. These tend to be West End media boutiques but he says Acorn is keen to put in place a more formal panel, and this is something he and Strong are looking at.
“We’re project-focused so we look for the relevant expertise at the time but place great importance on building long-term relationships we can rely on,” he says of the company’s present approach to instructing external counsel.
For his part, Dezoysa believes his chosen career path has made him into a more commercially focused lawyer than might otherwise have been the case.
“In private practice there’s a tendency, particularly at the junior level, to prepare polished pieces of advice that aren’t concise, set out all the options and are full of caveats,” he says. “In-house you can’t sit on the fence – you have to use your legal and commercial expertise to problem-solve and get things done.”
In other words, as Poirot might say, the little grey cells are very much in use at Acorn Productions.
Position: Head of legal and business affairs
Reporting to: managing director Hilary Strong
Company revenue: Not disclosed
Total legal capacity: Three
Main external law firms: West End media boutiques
Helena Peacock, group legal director, Penguin Random House UK
All in-house lawyers in the world of publishing spend a lot of time thinking about copyright. After all, our business is based on the exploitation of copyright, whether we buy it outright or merely license it from the originator.
As a result of the move by publishers to embrace the
digital age we on the legal side have had to become highly creative in our thinking to ensure our contracts are fit for purpose and that any particular creative work can be distributed in as many formats as readers want.
For example, whoever would have thought, even a few years ago, that there would be a debate raging as to whether an ‘app’ could be the subject of a separate copyright?
Although the digitisation of the industry opens all sorts of exciting possibilities, it has also led to an unwelcome explosion in piracy. As soon as we shut down one pirate website offering infringing editions, another opens.
But we’re not going to give in. The public debate about copyright and the role it ought to play in protecting the work of an author
is still going strong. Of course, there are many arguments on
both sides, but I would like to express one hope – that our lawmakers, in an effort to bring copyright law ‘up-to-date’, do not unwittingly make it even more difficult to apply.