How he managed to retain those rights is... well, it's just one of those wacky copyright stories you occasionally hear about.
U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson granted summary judgment in the producer/director/actor's favor yesterday, ruling that the fact Beatty had begun work on a half-hour TV special, which had Warren dressed as the Dick Tracy character answering questions from film critic Leonard Maltin, satisfied a use-it-or-lose-it clause in an agreement with Tribune to produce a Dick Tracy movie or TV show or lose the rights to the character.Mr. Beatty had to do something with the character. So he appeared wearing a yellow trenchcoat in a half-hour program that aired one time on Turner Classic Movies in 2009. Not only is this the most half-assed attempt to retain rights that I've ever heard of (I'm sure there have been worse, I'm no expert), but it actually sullies TCM as well. They gave up half an hour of airtime to help Warren Beatty in his cynical attempt to keep the rights to a property that he hasn't done anything with since 1990.
As for that TV special which featured Beatty discussing how Dick Tracy has been portrayed on film over the years, it only ran on Turner Classic Movies in July 2009. Beatty only made it to keep his rights intact.
Of course, Tribune Company is a huge corporation, and whoever was the high-priced attorney who negotiated that original contract with Mr. Beatty, in which all he had to do to retain the rights to the character was wear a trenchcoat for half an hour, ought to be fired. At least when DC and Warners were fighting their Superman copyfight, they had to actually start filming a movie.
There were two memorable aspects to the 1990 Dick Tracy film.