'Matrix' Lawsuit to Move Forward
ED GORDON, host:
The latest "Star Wars" movie, "Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," has shattered opening box-office records, taking in over $150 million in just four days. The previous record was set by "The Matrix Reloaded," the second in "The Matrix" trilogy. That billion-dollar franchise is credited to the Wachowski brothers, but African-American writer Sophia Stewart is suing Warner Bros., the studio that released the movie, over a story she claims was used as the basis of the megahit "The Matrix." NPR's Corey Moore reports.
(Soundbite from "The Matrix")
COREY MOORE reporting:
"The Matrix" scored big at the box office when it was released in March of 1999. But for one movie-goer, the film loaded with intricate storytelling and groundbreaking special effects seemed more than a tad familiar.
Ms. SOPHIA STEWART (Writer): When I go to the movies, I'm looking up on the screen, I said, `Oh, my God, I wrote this.' And I'm, like, the next scene, `I wrote this.'
MOORE: Sophia Stewart is a native New Yorker who now lives in Salt Lake City. She works as a paralegal, but her passion is writing. She says she was sitting in a movie theater six years ago and was shocked as "The Matrix," starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, played out on the big screen.
Ms. STEWART: And everybody's looking at me all crazy, and my date, Seagram, is, like, `What?' And I'm, like, `Yeah, I wrote this.' I said, like, `This is crazy,' because no one had paid me for the work.
MOORE: A "Star Wars" fanatic and science fiction junkie all her life, Stewart claims "The Matrix" evolved from a short story she wrote and copyrighted in 1981 titled "The Third Eye."
Ms. STEWART: I thought it would be fabulous to do the Second Coming of Christ into science fiction form, which was totally unheard of.
MOORE: With that biblical theme, she created a story which she contends is the same as "The Matrix." Keanu Reeves, who stars as Neo, is a man chosen to free humanity from enslavement by the machines. In her book, Stewart says the main character is named The One.
Ms. STEWART: And Neo is just an anagram for one. There's no creativity. They just flipped the script.
(Soundbite from "The Matrix")
Mr. KEANU REEVES: (As Neo) What are you talking about? What...
Unidentified Man #1: You are the one, Neo.
MOORE: In 1999, Stewart, a middle-aged African-American, filed suit in a California court against Warner Bros., the studio that produced "The Matrix." Also named in the suit, creators Andy and Larry Wachowski and noted producer Joel Silver. The lawsuit also involved 20th Century Fox. Stewart alleges it wasn't just her manuscript that was stolen.
Ms. STEWART: That body of work includes graphic illustrations, character analysis, special effects, screen treatment. It was just like a movie script, original draft, edited version of the draft, synopsis and the makings of "The Matrix," which is the makings of "The Third Eye."
MOORE: Stewart is seeking over $1 billion in damages. So how could all that material she claims to have created end up in the hands of studio executives? While studying film at the University of California in the early '80s, Stewart says she shopped her work around Hollywood for years. After constant rejection, she responded to an advertisement in a magazine asking readers to submit original science fiction stories to be considered for a comic book project. She won't reveal what magazine she saw the ad in but says the year was 1986. The solicitors, she says, "Matrix" creators Andy and Larry Wachowski.
Ms. STEWART: I sent them everything, because I felt like if you're going to do a comic book, they really need to see all of the work.
MOORE: We asked Stewart to show us some of the written material she says bolsters her claims about "The Matrix." She sent us an excerpt from her book, "The Third Eye," which reads...
Ms. STEWART: (Reading) `At all times, he was dressed in black, because black was the dominant color code of the Rothfellers' organization. He was the seed that the prophecy promised, the one that the multitudes had so long waited for.'
MOORE: But Warner Bros. attorney Bruce Isaacs says that's where the similarities to "The Matrix" end.
Mr. BRUCE ISAACS (Attorney): What she has written is kind of like a retelling of Revelations from the Bible, and she does combine some story concepts from "Star Wars" and "Dune." But we believe that a court or a jury will emphatically reject her claim.
MOORE: Yet a California court has allowed the case to move forward; this, in spite of efforts to have it thrown out, says Stewart.
Ms. STEWART: Before my four attorneys came to help me on the case, they called me up. Bruce Isaacs, Warner Bros. and Fox's attorney--Isaacs called me up and told me, `Warner Bros. and Fox told me to call you and ask you if you would drop the RICO,' because as you well know RICO would send them to jail, and that's where they do not want to go.
MOORE: RICO is short for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations. In short, the RICO law encompasses federal charges based on criminal activity.
Professor RUSSELL ROBINSON (UCLA): Filing this charge could maybe add some extra weight to her claims and the threat of criminal punishment.
MOORE: UCLA law Professor Russell Robinson is following the case. He says the RICO charge brought by Stewart could be her toughest battle.
Prof. ROBINSON: She's going to have to prove that they actually engaged in illegal activity like wire fraud or mail fraud. I think that might be hard to do. Then she's going to have to show that there was actually an enterprise formed kind of for the purpose of committing crimes.
MOORE: And that task is complicated by the fact that Stewart's lawsuit involves not one but six movies, three of which comprise "The Matrix" trilogy, and the other three?
(Soundbite from "The Terminator")
Mr. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: (As The Terminator) I'll be back.
MOORE: "The Terminator" trilogy. Stewart's lawsuit contends that franchise, produced by 20th Century Fox and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was also stolen from her. Attorney Bruce Isaacs says Fox, along with Warner Bros., have invited Stewart on many occasions to prove her claims.
Mr. ISAACS: We've been asking Miss Stewart literally since April of 1999, for six years, to have her provide us with the copy of this purported advertisement and the copy of her submission letter, and she's never been able to do it.
MOORE: Have their been any attempts to settle with Miss Stewart or will there be?
Mr. ISAACS: You know, it's sort of wrong for lawyers to talk about settlements, but I'm going to do it anyway in this instance. We have never talked to her about settlements and we plan to move forward with the motion for summary judgment.
MOORE: But Stewart believes her lawsuit will not be so easily dismissed. She cites what she says may ultimately prove her case--an FBI investigation. She says she contacted the FBI in 1999, and the agency questioned employees at Warner Bros. Some allegedly admitted the studio used aspects of her story. The FBI declined to comment. Again, attorney Bruce Isaacs.
Mr. ISAACS: I guarantee you that there's no finding by the FBI that Warner Bros. personnel have--I guess she's telling you that we've admitted that we made use of her material. It's not true. It's not correct. It didn't happen. I don't know what else to say.
MOORE: In a similar copyright infringement lawsuit in the late '80s, Pulitzer Prize-winner Art Buchwald sued Paramount for stealing his treatment for the film "Coming to America." It starred Eddie Murphy. Buchwald won, was awarded damages and then accepted a settlement from Paramount. Law Professor Russell Robinson of UCLA.
Prof. ROBINSON: In that case, there were actually seven people that claimed that they were responsible for the idea of "Coming to America." In the Stewart case, she's going to have to show not just that the basic idea was copied but that actual scenes, actual specific dialogue or actual well-defined characters were taken from her material and transplanted into "The Matrix."
MOORE: Stewart says she has the evidence she needs and plans to release her story, "The Third Eye," in book form later this year. She vows it will prove to the public that both "The Matrix" and "Terminator" films evolved from her work.
Ms. STEWART: Because they were crying for it, and they said I was crazy and so forth. Well, like they say, give the people what they want. Well, people, I'm getting ready to give you what you want, and when you pick up your mouth, also pick up your checkbook and carry your lipstick with you because you're going to be kissing my butt while you pay me.
(Soundbite of "The Matrix")
Unidentified Man #2: Anything is possible.
MOORE: Stewart's attorney, Gary S. Brown, told the Michigan Chronicle that the case against Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox is rock solid. If the dispute is not resolved by next Tuesday, "The Matrix" case goes to trial in July.
Corey Moore, NPR News, Los Angeles.
GORDON: That does it for the program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. If you'd like to comment, call us at (202) 408-3330. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.
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