Court Case Prompts Hollywood Plagiarism Debate
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Many people nurse a belief that they can write a screenplay that will make them rich and famous. Those dreams are often shattered when they can't get an actual filmmaker to read their script, of if they do, they filmmaker just goes, ehh. On the other hand, there are writers who become convinced that in a medium in which imitation is often the highest form of creativity, somebody has stolen his or her idea. When that happens, writers often find there are few legal recourses.
But as NPR's Lynn Neary reports, it may soon become easier for writers to pursue their case in court.
LYNN NEARY: About five years ago, when Reed Martin was shopping around his screenplay, Heart Copy, he found an agent who read the script and agreed to send it to a number of people in the film industry. The process moved slowly, but Martin was sure that a film would eventually come out of it. Then suddenly...
Mr. REED MARTIN (Screenwriter): I was told that he couldn't help me anymore. I thought it was just that I had overstayed my welcome and I sort of said, okay, that's fine, I understand. But then I started to hear, as I was sending the script out to other people, that a similar film was in development, and a similar film, then I heard, was actually in production.
NEARY: Martin saw the movie when it came out last year and was convinced his idea had been stolen, not just by anybody, but by one of the heroes of independent film, director Jim Jarmusch. The movie was Broken Flowers, starring Bill Murray. It's the story about a man who gets a letter telling him he may have a son, and urged on by a friend he sets out to track down his old girlfriends.
(Soundbite of Broken Flowers)
Mr. JEFFREY WRIGHT (Actor): (As character) You go visit him. You go to the houses. You see them. You bring flowers, pink flowers. You're just checking in.
Mr. BILL MURRAY (Actor): (As Don Johnston): Just checking in.
Mr. WRIGHT: (As character) I even got maps. Everything you need.
NEARY: Martin says the film's similarity to his own screenplay was striking.
Mr. MARTIN: It is absolutely the same type of character; a taciturn man of few words who is ostensibly childless, who goes on a road trip to find out what his life would have been like had he stayed with the women who he neglected.
NEARY: Martin had registered his screenplay and all revisions with the U.S. Copyright Office. He also registered it with the Writers Guild of America. He decided to sue Jarmusch, but soon learned that it's hard to win a copyright infringement case, because copyright law only protects the expression of an idea - things like dialogue, mood, pace, setting - not the idea itself.
Mr. VINCENT COX (Attorney): Idea similarity is a very, very common event.
NEARY: Vincent Cox is the attorney for Jim Jarmusch. The director has issued a statement saying the accusations against him have absolutely no merit. Cox says the lawsuit is an injustice to his client. The attorney says he's been involved in a lot of cases like this.
Mr. COX: The plaintiff will say that I went to theater, I sat down and I saw my movie on the screen. And if there was a lie detector going, in most instances, you'd find that he wasn't lying. He really thought that.
NEARY: Because copyright infringement cases are hard to win, many lawyers won't take them on. But Martin hired entertainment attorney John Marder, who made a name for himself in the case of Grosso vs. Miramax. In that case, screenwriter Jeff Grosso contended that Miramax had stolen the idea for the 1998 film Rounders from a screenplay he had written. Marder also argued that Grosso had submitted his idea to Miramax, expecting to be paid, and therefore he had an implied contract.
Marder says ideas for films are often discussed in pitch meetings, which works for film industry insiders.
Mr. JOHN MARDER (Attorney): Where it goes wrong is in circumstances where the person submitting the idea doesn't have the same bargaining power or the juice - or whatever you want to call it - with the producer. Those are the one guys out a hundred that don't get treated fairly.
NEARY: California's Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Marder's argument about implied contracts and allowed the case to proceed on that basis. Although the Grosso case was eventually dismissed, Marder says he will appeal that decision, and he has made the same argument in Reed Martin's case. He says the implied contract ruling is a landmark decision because it recognizes that ideas have value.
Mr. MARDER: The truth is, if you communicate an idea - even an idea that's not, you know, it doesn't have to be novel, it doesn't have to be original - as long as you communicate it to somebody who wants to hear it and they want to hear for the purpose of buying it, and they use it, they have to pay for it.
NEARY: The film industry is watching the legal action to see just how much the ground has shifted. Vincent Cox, whose firm also represented Miramax in the Grosso case, says the idea of implied contract will make it harder for unknown screenwriters to break into the business.
Mr. COX: In order for people to get in the door to talk to a studio, they're going to have to sign a release now. And the release is going to be quite explicit about limiting compensation for ideas. It's going to be quite explicit probably about the forum in which you can vindicate the claim, which will probably be arbitration, rather than the more expensive and more public federal district court.
NEARY: As for Reed Martin, his life is still consumed by his screenplay, only now he's focused on trying to prove it was stolen instead of getting it made into a film. And now that he's filed suit against a major studio and a well-known director, he knows his chances of ever working in Hollywood are slim.
Mr. MARTIN: That's the thing that people who write screenplays need to know about. They need to realize that if they are spending all of their time writing screenplays, and they are neglecting their relationships, and they're not spending time with their families, and they're potentially not taking jobs because they want to make the film themselves - they want to produce it a an Indy film - that they can be stung at any time and there's very little they can do.
NEARY: It will be a long time before Martin's case is resolved. After meeting with both sides next month, the judge is expected to set a date for a trial sometime next year.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.