Q&A: Can I Use the Same Title for My Movie as a Little-Known Studio Film from the 1970s?

Q: I’m in the process of wrapping up a movie. I just discovered that the title we’ve been using, and the title I love, was the title of a little known [major studio] film from back in the 70s. Can I still use the title?

A: Faithful readers, it’s so nice to be with you again. You may have noticed that the last few blogs from our Q&A team may have contained a few stale references. You may have asked yourself “why are these guys trying so hard to be pop culture relevant by bringing up A Prophettwo years after it was released?” Or “what’s up with the German broccoli references?” Or (for our more avid readers) “I’ve memorized every brilliant word written by these brilliant minds and I know I’ve seen this brilliant blog before!” Well, faithful readers, we were tired of watching all you independent documentarians and shoestring filmmakers line your fat pockets with millions based on our legal advice without seeing anything but pathetic adoration in return. We took a cue from our football and basketball brethren and decided a little work stoppage was in order. We’re transactional attorneys, dammit! If we can’t kill a good thing with overzealous unrealistic negotiating, we’re not doing our jobs! So we’ve been holding out… I’m happy to report we’re now banking 13 peanut M&M’s per blog (peanuts removed). (In reality, we were kinda just busy hanging out on the couch.)

In honor of an historic event like this (I love saying “an” before “historic”), I wanted to entitle this blog The Comeback – The Day the Screaming Stopped. But wouldn’t you know it, some jerk already took that title. Which so nicely brings us back to your question. Continue reading the full story . . . »


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10, 9, 8…Lawsuit? The Blow Up Over Beyoncé’s “Countdown” Choreography

About a year ago, I wrote my very first blog regarding copyright protection for choreography. In that post, I explained that even though dance is one of the world’s oldest art forms, the legal framework around copyright protection for choreography is still one of the least developed around. And, as our loyal readers will recall, the combination of law nerd/ex-dancer in me affectionately wished for the day that we would see a courtroom battle over choreography theft. Unfortunately for Beyoncé, the countdown may be over. (Cheesy pun intended.)

Most of you had probably never heard of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, a Belgian contemporary dance choreographer. That is, until the recent release of Beyoncé’s “Countdown” video. Almost immediately following the release of “Countdown,” Beyoncé faced allegations that she stole the choreography featured in her video from two of De Keersmaeker’s contemporary works, Rosas danst Rosas (1993) and Achterland (1990). While Beyoncé admits that De Keersmaeker’s works were “one of the inspirations used to bring the feel and look of the song to life,” her official statement — no doubt vetted by a team of lawyers — was careful not to admit that she (or, more appropriately, her team) actually copied De Keersmaeker’s choreography. Thanks to YouTube and those of you out there with way too much time on your hands, however, we can analyze De Keersmaeker’s claims for ourselves and determine whether “Countdown” crosses the line between inspiration and imitation.

First, take a look at Beyoncé’s “Countdown” video:

And then take a look at De Keersmaeker’s works featured in this split-screen comparison:

Yeah, that’s kind of hard to explain away.

Although De Keersmaeker claims that she is neither upset nor honored that Beyoncé copied her dance moves, she made a point to say that “there are protocols and consequences to such actions, and I can’t imagine [Beyoncé] and her team are not aware of it.” Is De Keersmaeker right about those consequences? That is, does Beyoncé’s “Countdown” video infringe De Keersmaeker’s copyright in her choreography? Let’s recap some of the things we have learned here at Law Law Land. Continue reading the full story . . . »


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Q&A: What Life Rights Do I Need to Write a Screenplay About Someone Who Died But Has Surviving Family?

Q: I have a question that I’ve been toiling over for months. I’ve done some research on it and cannot find a clear answer. I’m beginning to work with a writer on a screenplay on someone who died about 20 years ago. She has surviving brothers, but her parents are dead and she never married or had children. What type of life story rights do we need to acquire to tell this story — a screenplay that could potentially turn into a feature film? I guess the first question should be do I even need to buy or acquire the life story rights? Can I just change her name?

A: First of all, there is really no such thing as life story rights. There is the right against being defamed. There is the right against certain private facts about you being publicly disclosed without your permission — the New York Times would be violating it if its reporter sneaked in your bedroom, copied your most secret diary entries, and published them. And there are certain other rights of this nature. But there is no life story rights. When you buy life story rights, what you really “buy” is a promise from the subject of your story that they will not sue you for defamation or any number of other possible violations of their privacy rights.

In theory, you can make a movie about anyone alive without obtaining their “life story rights,” as long as the movie doesn’t defame the subject and doesn’t violate all these other privacy rights. In practice, that’s hard to do and no matter how much you try not to violate these rights, you can’t stop someone from alleging you did. So practically, in most cases, when a movie is made about someone alive, “life story rights” are acquired.

Now let’s focus on the dead. Perfect timing — Halloween is less than a month away. The dead can’t be defamed. The dead have no rights of privacy. The dead have no say about how they’re portrayed in movies. You can say anything you want about the dead, true, false, or in between. Well, not all of the dead. Continue reading the full story . . . »


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Do They Serve Damn Fine Coffee in a Breastaurant?

Okay, mind association-game time. If I say “Twin Peaks,” what immediately leaps to mind? Poor, murdered Laura Palmer, earnest Special Agent Dale Cooper, lumberjacks, log ladies and one-armed men, right? Oh, and Hooters, of course.

That’s right, I said Hooters, in all its scantily-clad-waitress-hiring, chicken-wing-serving glory. You see, Hooters of America has got its lingerie all in a bunch over a rival chain of “Twin Peaks” restaurants. (Their slogan? “Eats, Drinks, Scenic Views.” You can’t make this stuff up, people; not even David Lynch is that good.) The Twin Peaks business model, apparently, involves scantily-clad waitresses serving chicken wings in a mountain-themed restaurant. Hooters claims that when a former executive left Hooterville to join Twin Peaks-operator La Cima Restaurants (yep, as in “mountain top”), he took with him a stash of highly confidential, sensitive Hooters business data that La Cima then used to create the Twin Peaks restaurant model. A nasty B-cup battle is now brewing (ok, maybe a D cup, but I’m all about the alliteration) in Georgia federal court over this purported trade secret violation.

Call me crazy, but for something to be a trade secret, doesn’t it need to be, um, secret? Seriously, is there anyone over 18 on the planet who doesn’t know the “secret” to Hooters’ success? We’re not talking about the formula to Coke here. Does “boobs and beer” qualify as a highly classified trade secret these days? (Victoria may beg to differ, but what does she know?) Continue reading the full story . . . »


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Q&A: What’s the Difference Between a Movie That’s “Based On” a Book and a Movie That’s “Inspired By” One?

Q: I have a question regarding the rights needed to make a film “based on” a book, and/or “inspired by” a book. First of all, is there a legal difference between these two terms? It seems that one implies a more direct adaptation (“based on”) and the other a looser connection to a book, but is there some legal basis for determining this? Also, does one need to purchase the rights to a book that “inspires” their film? How about a book that it is “based on”?

A: In answer to your first question, while technically there is no legal significance to the specific words “based on” or “inspired by,” there is legal significance to what each term may imply. Continue reading the full story . . . »


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Thank You, Steve Jobs

It’s not even news anymore to report that yesterday, the world lost a visionary and a true inspiration — Steve Jobs. Personally, I was devastated by the news. Although I didn’t know Steve Jobs personally, I nevertheless feel a sense of personal loss now that he has passed. Why am I so saddened by the death of someone I never knew?

Maybe it’s because I’ve been an Apple guy ever since I played my first computer game on my neighbor’s Apple IIe. I bought my first Macintosh computer in 1987 (a Mac Plus with a single floppy drive and no hard drive). Even through the dark years after the company stupidly fired its heart, soul and creative genius, I was still an Apple guy and tried to convince everyone else that Macs were the best computers around. Back then, people thought I was crazy (not one of the good “Crazy Ones” Apple highlighted in this classic ad to revive the company in the late 90s, just a real crazy one). Thanks to Steve Jobs, nobody calls me crazy anymore — well, at least not because of my love of Apple products.

But I’m clearly not alone in feeling that sense of personal loss. The Internet is already rife with comparisons of Steve Jobs’ loss to the deaths of rock stars like John Lennon and Elvis. Why? Maybe it’s because Steve Jobs is largely responsible for changing so much about how we live our lives. Continue reading the full story . . . »


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