I have very little patience for accusations that someone “stole my idea for a movie.” Or a TV show. Or an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
Such complaints are common. Sometimes, it becomes a copyright lawsuit. More often, it’s a campaign of whispers. As noted in the aforelinked post:
A while back, a screenwriting colleague was dealing with a guy who was claiming on message boards that a certain blockbuster was stolen from his script. The “proof?” One of the characters had the same name. Basically, the guy was arguing that the screenwriter had changed the plot, the setting, the character’s motivations — pretty much everything but this one character’s name. It’s hard to claim that a conspiracy is both thorough and lazy.
In almost all these cases, the question fails once you consider the silent evidence: if the script in question is just as similar to a dozen other unproduced scripts, it’s hard to claim infringement, legally or spiritually.
When these cases make it to court, studios will often do the back-of-envelope calculations and decide it’s more cost effective to settle than fight. Any case you put before a jury is a case you can lose. The plaintiff’s attorneys know this, so they will forego upfront fees in exchange for a piece of the settlement.
So I was heartened to see that last week, a studio decided to fight and won. The case involved a lawsuit over the Jane Fonda/Jennifer Lopez comedy Monster-in-Law. Recaps Eriq Gardner for THR’s law blog:
Not only did Gilbert [the plaintiff] lose, with the judge finding “vast differences in characters, plot, mood and theme” from her script and the film’s script, but her claims were deemed so unworthy and motivated by “bad faith” that the judge last month ordered Gilbert to pay the defendant’s legal tab.
That legal tab? $894,983.
I don’t know that the result will have much of a chilling effect on future litigants, but I hope it will embolden some studio lawyers to fight back.
These bogus claims of idea theft feed pernicious myths about Hollywood:
- That movie ideas have much worth independent of execution.
- That writers and writing are secondary to the idea.
- That big ideas emerge unique and fully-formed without antecedent.
Additionally, these lawsuits obscure the very real ways working screenwriters find their ideas used without compensation. When developing a feature based on some existing material, it’s become common for producers to meet with six or eight writers to hear their takes. These bake-offs almost inevitably lead to cross-pollination, which raises the real question of whether writers are being used as unpaid R&D.
It’s this kind of intellectual appropriation — not “what the movie is” but “how to do it” — that is a much bigger issue in modern Hollywood. But because it’s subtle and hard to document, it doesn’t lend itself to headlines.