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Movie studios and producers accused of screenplay theft

Written by James Delahunty @ 31 May 2006 7:34 User comments (23)

Movie studios and producers accused of screenplay theft When you hear the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) talk about the effects Internet piracy has on the global films industry, you are guaranteed to hear about how movie downloaders are stealing from everyone involved in making movies. Hollywood studios call movie downloaders thieves for this act, but can they also be called thieves if they steal somebody else's work? Well, a growing number of cases are accusing studios and movie producers of stealing screenplays.
Reed Martin is responsible for just one of many lawsuits that have been aimed at Hollywood studios or people. He worked on his screenplay while he was working at Columbia University and New York University. After ten years he finally got his break when a Hollywood talent manager read and really enjoyed his script.

"And he agreed to send it around to actors in the industry," said Martin. "He asked me to make up a list of people I'd like to have in the film and I gave him my top choices -- among them Bill Murray -- and he said he'd try to make it happen for me." I can't imagine how good this could have made Martin feel. It would seem that his creative work was about to pay off - but he discovered that Hollywood had a few surprises in store for him.

Initially there was a lot of interest in his script, but all of a sudden, the phone stopped ringing. "I started to hear that a similar film was in production," he said. "And that I was potentially dead in the water." The film was Broken Flowers starring Bill Murray, who receives an anonymous pink letter informing him he has a son who might be looking for him. The film is about his journey to find 5 ex-girlfriends to see if he can figure out who sent it, and if there is any truth to the letter.

To Martin's horror, this plot and even the characters and scenes in the movie are almost identical to his screenplay. "When I saw the film," he said, "I was shocked to see that we have five girlfriends: one who has died, a former girlfriend who lives with bikers, another girlfriend who keeps a photograph of a Labrador retriever, the cat scene, the comedic nude scene of the film."

Along with his attorney, John Marder, of the Los Angeles law firm Manning and Marder, Martin filed suit again the director of Broken Flowers, Jim Jarmusch and Focus Features, which produced and distributed the film. Marder said that screenplays are stolen very frequently in Hollywood, and the thieves behind it can pretty much completely get away with their crimes.

"They simply exclude the writer -- the person that brought them this valuable property -- develop it themselves and then hide behind copyright," said Marder. "They say, 'Hey your ideas weren't protected, whether we stole them or not you have no claim.'" Unfortunately Federal copyright laws don't cover idea's, just the specific expression of an idea. So if you wanted to steal a screenplay, all you'd have to do is change a few details to get away with it.

However, a recent case involving the Miramax movie Rounders resulted in an interesting ruling by a California appeals court. The court ruled that while a stolen screenplay doesn't always amount to copyright infringement, it may be a breach of contract. "The court says you don't actually have to have a contract -- they're going to imply it," said Marder. "If you're a producer and you're meeting with an author to hear his idea, you're doing it because you want to buy it and you're going to pay for it."

Marder claims that Martin had an implied contract when he pitched his screenplay idea and the producers of Broken Flowers breached it by making an almost identical movie and not paying Martin for his work. The impact on Hollywood could be huge if a court will see eye to eye with Martin. Aaron Moss, an attorney with the Los Angeles firm Greenberg Glusker explains that not only screenplay thieves would be worrying.

"The concern is that if somebody pitches a script and the studio ends up making a movie that's not substantially similar -- and yet there are certain individual ideas that are the same -- are they going to be held liable?" said Moss. This case is definitely one to keep an eye on. A similar case involving the screenplay for The Last Samurai has also been filed and it's predicted that many more similar suits will appear soon.

I guess stealing is allowed in Hollywood if it benefits the movie studios.


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23 user comments

131.5.2006 20:25

"Piracy is a crime unless we make money from ripping off someone else's story." Filthy hypocrites.

21.6.2006 02:51

for someone who has a number of screenplays in production im kinda worried about this. i mean how can i sell a screenplay if they can read it and ripoff the idea? why cant i copyright a screenplay? i can copyright a book!

31.6.2006 07:08

babelfish "why cant i copyright a screenplay?" Is it true that a screenplay cannot be copyright??? If that is really the case I'd think about writing stories in novel format.

41.6.2006 07:27

well, the above says so - if i can take a look at someone's screen play - totally ripoff the idea and there is no comeback. sounds dodgy to me. but as you say i will be doing the writing in a more prose/novel like approcah from now. i just dont see how copyright doesnt apply to screenplays? i mean you did that in a degree you would get booted out for plagarism?!?!?

51.6.2006 10:18

Yes, screenplays (and ANY other intellectual property) can be copyrighted. But you have to pay an IP attorney to do it, and as that article says, it only applies to your SPECIFIC expression of your idea. If someone sees your idea & expresses it differently (even slightly), then your copyright doesn't cover THEIR specific expression of YOUR idea. So using that same logic - if I edit the IFOs of a DVD I'm backing up so it plays differently, haven't I expressed the idea (no matter whose it was) substantially differently?

61.6.2006 11:57

"So using that same logic - if I edit the IFOs of a DVD I'm backing up so it plays differently, haven't I expressed the idea (no matter whose it was) substantially differently?" Sure you can, but that's not the same logic. "By that logic" what you are doing is editing the movie and then you would claim the movie was created by you. You're still not allowed to break the protection on the disc. That's the problem.

71.6.2006 13:46

Hollywood lawyers will work overtime to cover the stealing done by producers because that is who pays them. The "Big Guys" in Hollywood think its OK for them to steal anything they can get by with. For years they cheated actors out of hugh sums of money until the actors got the money together to hire their own lawyers. They have done the same to writers forever. But when the shoe is on the other foot and you might be getting sometime of theirs they come after you with big guns. We know they are all slime balls, why would anyone be surprised by this? These guys have ego's a mile high. They don't have to follow the rules. No, I not surprised. I say stick it to them whenever you can.

81.6.2006 13:50

The copyright boilerplate that I have seen (which is not much) typically contains "in whole or in part" language. I don't get it. That's some slippery sh!t. US patent law is so messed up that it allows patenting of "ideas", but IP law is so weak that the studios can steal ideas, copyright the resulting product and get away with it. The system is broke... and almost always in favor of the fat cats. Go figure.

91.6.2006 14:13

So... it's ok if they steal somebody's idea and make Millions of dollars off of it, but I were to make a copy a dvd and let my buddy watch, then I can go to jail/get heavily fined for *possible* lost revenue? Hmmm, yep our legal system is in great shape! :(

102.6.2006 01:38

Hmm.. Well, if I ever write a screenplay I'm going to get it copyrighted first. That way when they steal my work I can say that they better have proof they're not ripping off my script. If they can go to theatres I can always point back to the copyright and own them in court. Where's the harm in copyrighting a script that will never see the light of day? Better than the alternative.

112.6.2006 02:39

d00d - everyone knows the US judicial system is about as honest as their government elections. there is no way you can fight rich people in a court of law these days... sad fact but true...

122.6.2006 05:48

The joys of the elites they can rip off each other and even steal from thier pawns but god forbid the masses get thigns at a desent non bloated price....

132.6.2006 06:02

yup - bloody ripoff merchants - like why are DVDs twice the RRP that VHS was? even tho we all know DVDs are so much cheaper to produce and ship?!?!

142.6.2006 06:25

having read some of bablefish's screenplay I must say they are quite crap. did I say crap sorry I meant original.... :) only kiddin BF having worked with the fish on several projects and I too am now bothered by the threat of seeing our hard labour end up on the big screen without our names in the credits.. We have had to overcome copyright issues with other projects but never like this...... Does anyone know of a way we can be protected?? Is there some collective we can address with the problem? Saying that is there any wonder all new films are either sequels prequels or remakes.. No decent writer dare show his s**t to anyone without fear of getting robbed. wonder how long it'll be before the monkeys of planet hollywood realise they are being fed the same old crap!! :)

152.6.2006 06:34

haha :) cheeky sod :) d00d they havent realised in 100+ years its the same old crap - problem is people keep buying the same old crap :)

162.6.2006 06:46

yeah man, cos no new writers dare show folks their new ideas!!! LOL In one respect we are quite fortunate in knowing few amateur film makers, so we can have a go at making the films ourselves, then surely we have a stronger copyright case.... dont we? if so make a rough demo with a cam corder to go with ya script reckon we will all still get b*m r*ped in the end re

174.6.2006 21:04

"So using that same logic - if I edit the IFOs of a DVD I'm backing up so it plays differently, haven't I expressed the idea (no matter whose it was) substantially differently?"- LOL!!! Here's where i stand on this. I love movies. I spend well over 2 or 3 hundred dollars seeing movies in the theatre every year. If the MPAA get's mad at me for downloading a movie i already payed entirely too much money to see in the first place, they can kiss mine foreal. Sometimes i feel like a sexpot, and the american market is just trying to fornicate me. I wish artists in the movie and music industry would spend more time trying to make impressive work instead of trying to steal my money.

186.6.2006 05:24

Copyright Law only protects the 'work' that you take the trouble to apply for a copyright for. As a graphic artist I know from experience that this law is useless unless you can aford a very pricey lawyer to help you protect and enforce your copyright. Hollywood has for many years figured out that creative accounting keeps them from paying any taxes on their profits by figuring out ways to say they actually LOST money on films that grossed MILLIONS over what they actually cost. Why would you be surprised that they have learned to not only steal ideas and scripts from aspiring writers, but to have figured out that their corporate lawyers can use the very law you are holding up to them against you? They take credit for work that isn't their's and they wonder why we refuse to BUY replacement DVD's. Making a backup of movies you own doesn't hurt them. Selling backup copies in bulk as if they were originals does hurt them and should be illegal. They can't touch the black-market bootleggers, but they can touch us. So they take it out on everyone else with blanket lawsuits and intimidation that would make the Mafia proud. They can buy any politician to support them and they do. Most of these writers are wasting their time. They don't have the money or the time to fight a studio that only needs to spend 1% of the profit from a movie to kill these lawsuits.

1915.9.2006 20:43

Eventually what goes around comes around. I am also waiting for the day when the RIAA gets the rug cut out from under them. Their conduct has been deplorable.

2016.9.2006 09:28

Hey, this is real simple. Hollywood producers have the big money. I am sad to say that in today's world, "He who can hire the best lawyer wins". They can buy the legal system and they can buy the political system. I have no use for any of them. I check out the movies and music from my local library. Pretty soon they will figure out a way to make that illegal too. As I have said before, its all about GREED.

2119.11.2008 04:05

I was/am also a victum of this whole hollywood script ripoff scandal. I pitched my work to 20th Century Fox and they told me that had no use for it at the time but maybe later. Okay. Then then took my work to Korea and had some broad to rewrite it as work for hire and released it all over the world EXCEPT America (but mind you it was copyrighted here - but no release...suspecious?). I guess they were trying to use the whole statue of limatations rule because around 3 years later they decided to do (what they called) an Americanized remake which I still knew nothing about at the time. Only after the movie started airing it preview trailers did people from Los Angeles to the mid-west start calling me wanting to know why I didn't tell them that the movie was made. My work...that I had been working on for a long time is now made without my consent and rewritten to appear to be authentic...bullsh*t!!! Any fool that knows me know that I, I was working on that project and decided to film it myself as a future project. Guess that's not possible now. The movie was release this past August and both this and the so-called orginal has ties with Regency (owned by FOX). FOX was one of two studios in which I discussed my work with and was the ONLY studio in which I actually left a copy with because they requested me to. Talk about being "slow" at the time. The nerve of them to turn down a fellow American's work and waste all that freak'n money going to Korea of all places when I was right here and they knew just to do a lousy job on both movies!!! The F*CK'N nerve!!!

2219.11.2008 04:55

These studio people.. they are just f*ck'n bums. You should go see a useless producer with some total crap generic screenplay.. act like a complete n00b.. take the piss all along the line.. then when you leave, steal his car

This message has been edited since its posting. Latest edit was made on 19 Nov 2008 @ 4:57

2314.4.2009 17:28

I know that when I type this someone is going to think I'm lying but I'm not. When I was in college form 1995-2002 I had written several scripts and saved them on a disk that went missing in college. These were the names of my script: "Prison Break", The Adventures of Crackel, Frazzle and Grazzle (a Bee movie script), Senator's Dilemma (Which I'm quite sure is State of Play since the premise and the characters are all the same except for the minor changes they've made to the script), A soap operish musical drama that involved 6 best friends and a movie script called Switcheroo that was very similar to Wife Swap the reality show.

I'm quite sure that someone stole this disk or never turned it into the lost and found department at the University. I feel helpless, upset but since these were only my outlined notes and scenes for the movie script they were never copywrited. Infact I only have a shell of these script notes and have lost the majority of the material.

When the scripts were lost I told my mother in college well we'll see in ten years top if shows similar to all of these come out and lo and behold they have. The guy who supposedly wrote prison break it was written on wikipedia had a difficult time selling the idea or script at first because it looked like something a film student had came up with. Really?

The script notes I had written and scenes had a lot of holes in them which is why I never tried to sell them at that time since they weren't fully developed. So, I definitely, believe that most of these movie ideas or scenarios have probably been snatched or stolen from average Joe's and Jane's in most of Hollywood. And if you don't have the connections or the know how then you're just stuck out.

Also, if anyone knows of any websites which sells people's concepts, ideas or scripts could I would appreciate it if someone would send this information to me. I'm just curious as to which individual are selling these ideas to hollywood. And I wouldn't be shocked if a lot of them come from struggling college or film students.

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