Copyright claims are nothing new in Hollywood, but I don’t remember anything quite like this. Eriq Gardner looks at two lawsuits filed by producers of an upcoming Emma Thompson film trying to establish that her screenplay doesn’t infringe on existing works:

In February, Effie Film LLC, the production company behind the coming new film, sued playwright Gregory Murphy. The company hoped to get a declaration that Thompson’s script didn’t infringe Murphy’s play entitled The Countess, which also covered the Effie affair.

Last Friday, Effie Film brought a second lawsuit –- this time against another writer, Eve Pomerance, who in 1995, copyrighted a screenplay entitled The Secret Trials of Effie Gray.

Both Murphy and Pomerance are alleged to have threatened Thompson if she went ahead with plans to make her Effie. In the latest lawsuit, it’s alleged that Pomerance’s lawyers asserted that Thompson’s screenplay is substantially similar to the 1995 registered screenplay.

Thompson, who is represented by Andrew Deutch at DLA Piper, wishes to rest all controversy lest she complete the film and then be hit with legal action from other writers. Her concern is understandable in light of the fact that Hollywood studios get hit all the time with claims from writers alleging copyright theft.

Can potential copyright claims be cleared pre-production?

It’s not a question of can; in general, copyright claims must get cleared before production, because insurance bond companies insist upon a clear chain-of-title. When adapting a book, that’s pretty clear-cut — either you have the rights or you don’t.

Here, it’s more problematic. Copyright doesn’t protect ideas (such as the Effie affair), but rather the unique expression of ideas: story, characterization, scenes and whatnot. Copyright lawsuits almost always occur after production — in the case of In Time, shortly before release, to create the greatest impact.

A preemptive lawsuit is an interesting strategy. I’m fascinated to watch how it plays out.