Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wannabe Writer v. Avatar

I had a couple of calls from people seeking legal advice before Avatar was released. I told them all I no longer litigate (true), but the last thing I wanted to be involved in was something as silly as this law suit which has been filed. The book has never been published and sounds like what my friends in publishing call a "Mary Sue." I'm sure that if the manuscript ever hit a slush pile, it would be used in a late-night, read-out-loud session at a science fiction convention, which is what happens to really bad manuscripts.

There are legitimate cases where work has been stolen and the plaintiff prevails. The Northern Exposure case won by Glen Kulik always comes to mind. And Harlan Ellison had a famous run-in with James Cameron over Terminator (Cameron made an admission against interest which led to it, I hear. It was years before Harlan was my client.) Harlan also went up against Paramount over a short-lived TV series called Brillo, which I hear led to a billboard near Paramount for a while (again, before he was my client.)

I once had someone from Eastern Europe call me to say that a disaster movie had been stolen from him. His English was not good enough for me to believe that had happened. Actually, several times I've gotten inquiries about what would be a theft of idea case where I didn't think the caller had the language skills to have written a screenplay or novel that anyone would have (a) read or (b) stolen. (If this sounds a little elitist or arrogant, I'm married to a very successful writer and wordsmith--an "old god" of his field--and I have spent time with many, many famous writers. I also spent time working in publishing. I know the difference between good and god-awful.)

Most of the time, the plaintiff is working on a theft of idea theory--somehow their idea or work got into the hands of someone who then used it as the basis of a movie. The plaintiff would not have given it away without expectation of payment. These claims of quasi-contract only have a chance of working in California. It's a claim under state law, and most states won't recognize it.

Copyright does not protect ideas, only expression. If a substantial amount of the "idea" has been expressed in writing--an outline, a treatment, or a draft of a screenplay--the first thing a studio which is hit with a theft of idea case will try to do is kick it from state court to Federal Court as a copyright claim. If the plaintiff hasn't registered the copyright to the work, it puts them behind the eight ball at the start and severely limits plaintiff's damages.

The next step in the plaintiff's case is going to be to show access and substantial similarity between plaintiff's work and the alleged infringing work. And defendants don't get off the hook by showing how much they changed from the original. There is no magic percentage of change that makes it original, no matter what you have heard.

Access such as having a meeting with the producer who produced the infringing work and submission of plaintiff's work is pretty darned good potential access (which is why most places won't even look at work that's submitted cold without getting a waiver from the writer.) The similarity becomes the big hurtle. There are experts who do detailed analysis and charts to present evidence of similarity or lack thereof.

In a science fiction or fantasy work, traveling to a new world with strange new creatures is endemic to the genre. There are hundreds of tropes in these genres. Space ships, winged aliens, elongated, aliens of different colors, military invasions, mining (even Star Wars had a mining planet) etc., etc., etc. The stranger in a strange land concept goes back to the Bible and probably beyond (the phrase comes from the Bible.) Using any or all of these concepts doesn't get you to copyright infringement. Things have to be a lot more specific and it is even better if chucks of dialogue are identical (and not just because that's what anyone would say under certain circumstances.)

I haven't seen Avatar, which is strange considering my background. But I'm not a Cameron fan and, while I think this lawsuit is bogus, there are plenty of other sources from which Cameron probably stole his ideas. But he's allowed to steal the ideas, just not the expression. Even people who are as turned off by his poor dialogue as I am say it is the visuals that make the film and he did a great job with them.

Among the material I've seen people cite as source material for Avatar's plot and other elements are Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas and Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea stories. When I finally get around to watching it, I may have some suggestions to add.

I expect that this lawsuit is going to get thrown out at the motion stage. With a bit of luck, the judge may even sanction the law firm if this is as frivolous as it looks at first glance. I'm having a hard time reading the complaint without laughing.

Monday, May 17, 2010

WB v. Superman's Lawyer

I doubt that I would have been contacted by the Siegel & Shuster families when my article "Truth Justice & the American Way" appeared in L.A. Lawyer Magazine in 1996 if some of the allegations in the law suit against Marc Toberoff are true. There are things in the opening paragraphs of the complaint, which you can read here, that don't sound like what I learned when I was doing my research for the article or the law school paper that preceded it in 1992.

It will be very chilling if lawyers can be sued personally for taking on a legitimate case (which the Siegels did have for the renewal rights.) And I find it annoying that the complaint waxes eloquently about how well DC Comics/WB took care of the Siegels and Shusters when anyone in the comic book industry can tell tales to the contrary for a huge part of the 70 plus years of Superman's existence. Paul Levitz did a lot to improve the financial position of many of the older, pre-equity creators, but there were a lot of years before he ran the company.

And, contrary to the allegations in the complaints, Siegel and Shuster used every legal opportunity they had to attempt to regain control of the Superman empire. The various suits are a matter of public record. Both Siegel and Shuster died before the window for reclaiming works created under the 1909 Copyright Act which was written into the 1976 Copyright Act opened. That opportunity was described in a side-bar in my article. The Siegel heirs (widow and daughter and grandchildren) had that right. The complaint correctly notes that Joe Shuster left neither widow nor offspring, so I don't know what was done to include the Shuster heirs (sister and nephew, I think) in the matter.

I will certainly be watching this closely. Mr. Toberoff, I hear, is also representing the family of Jack Kirby against Marvel, and some of those properties have a direct bearing on my husband's Marvel creations.