Film and Television

Last month, I wrote about some notable examples of film and television producers being sued or threatened for using other peoples’ creations without permission.  Examples included Emerson Electric suing NBC after Claire from Heroes stuck her hand in an “InSinkErator” brand garbage disposal; Coca Cola Companythreatening legal action against an Italian film distributor over a film in which


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Have you ever noticed how people rarely sing “Happy Birthday to You” in movies and television?  Instead, people usually sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” even though no one actually sings that song in real life.  Nevertheless, this falsification of reality happens all the time.  My favorite example was when the crew of the Enterprise


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In celebration of Tax Day today, we here at Law Law Land offer tribute to our favorite celebrity/IRS run-ins.  Now, lest you think this is just another list airing dirty celebrity tax laundry, think again.  This is a classy publication, as you well know, so if you’re looking for dirt on which celebrities owe what, look elsewhere. . . like 


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In February, I wrote about a particularly fake-haired boneheaded lawsuit that Donald Trump brought against comedian Bill Maher.  As you may recall, Trump accused Maher of breach of contract based on a joke that Maher had made on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, in which he had jokingly — really, completely obviously, jokingly — offered $5 million to the charity of Trump’s choice (the Hair Club for Men was Maher’s suggestion) if the real-estate mogul-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-national-punchline could provide proof that he was not, in fact, “the spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan.”  Ignoring the scientific impossibility of humans and orangutans being capable of producing offspring, and surely torturing his poor lawyer (whom he conscripted to respond to Maher), Trump purported to “accept” this offer by sending Maher a letter enclosing a copy of his birth certificate (short form only, though!) and demanding payment of the $5 million.  When Maher did not respond to the letter, Trump went bananas and filed a lawsuit.

After recounting Bill Maher’s hilarious response to the lawsuit, I boldly joined the near-consensus of legal observers in predicting that Trump would lose the lawsuit.  And I’m here to report, I was wrong — Trump never even had a chance to lose the case, because he dismissed the lawsuit himself, perhaps as a result of his lawyers reaching the same conclusion I did.  (Or perhaps, Trump’s simian brain finally realized that the situation had evolved beyond his control.)

 
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What do Avril Lavigne cover songs, Dish Network’s AutoHop feature, celebrity sex tapes, apartment hunting websites, and ad-serving browser skinning programs have in common?

Each of them is a window into how copyright, an 18th century concept, drafted into a 20th century law, impacts the products we use and the way we experience life in a 21st century world.

The Simplest, Most Complicated Law You Know

Non-lawyers usually think of copyright as a pretty simple and intuitive area of the law, and in many ways, it’s one of the easiest areas to break down into easy, digestible (if somewhat oversimplified) terms.  What’s a copyright?  The exclusive right to control and exploit creative works.  How do you infringe a copyright?  Copy or perform a work without permission/payment, or steal it to create your own new, too-similar work.  Putting aside people’s chronic tendency to confuse copyrights and trademarks — helpful hint:  copyrights are for creative works, trademarks are for brand name, logos, and slogans — copyright is an area of law that, at least initially, the general public can intuitively “get.”

Of course, when the breakneck speed of technological development meets the languorous pace of national lawmaking, things can get a bit more complicated. For example, when the copyright infringement case against file-sharing service Grokster finally came before the Supreme Court in 2005, the Court’s nine justices required three separate opinions and the invention of an entire new theory of copyright liability to explain why Grokster was illegal, but other, less offensive services might not be illegal.  (Headline:  “Supreme Court Rules ‘Unanimously’ Against Grokster 3-3-3.”)

To be fair, though, things started getting wacky long before the Internet was invented.  For instance, most people know that any musician can cover any other musician’s song, without permission (for a small, statutorily-defined fee).  Why?  Because in 1909, Congress created a special “compulsory license” scheme to allow player piano roll makers to sell song rolls without having to separately seek permission from the original songwriters.  Somewhere along the way, some clever lawyer figured out the law was drafted broadly enough to allow for unauthorized cover songs, and now we all have to deal with Avril Lavigne defiling John Lennon’s “Imagine” in the name of Darfur relief.  (Miley Cyrus’s evisceration of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Celine Dion’s desecration of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” were, to my knowledge, only ever performed live, and so we have adifferent quirk of copyright law — the proliferation of blanket “public performance” licenses  managed by performing rights organizations ASCAP and BMI — to blame for those abominations.)


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Many people consult with psychics.  Not an unusual thing to do (certainly not in California).  But not a lot of people spend the next 38 years adding rooms to their houses because the soothsayer said spirits would kill them if construction ever stopped.  At least one person is reported to have done so:  Sarah Winchester, the widow of the son of the famed gunmaker.  By the time the heiress died in 1922 at age 82, her seven-room farmhouse had become a seven-story, 160-room Victorian-style mansion, replete with winding dead-end passageways, interior windows, and doors to nowhere.

hauntedThese types of legends make good movies, which is why a production company approached the owner of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, to request permission to film there.  The owner turned it down, stating that another company had already acquired the rights to the Winchester story.  The filmmakers went ahead and made their movie anyway, calling it Haunting of Winchester House and putting a Victorian-style mansion on the DVD cover.  You can guess what happened next.

The case that followed, Winchester Mystery House, LLC v. Global Asylum, Inc., represents a classic battle seen frequently in the world of entertainment litigation:  the trademark owner who wishes to preserve his exclusive rights to a particular name vs. the artist who wishes to use that name as part of a creative work.  And the battleground?  The First Amendment, of course.  So what happens when the owners of one of America’s most famous haunted houses take on the filmmakers who have gone renegade to tell its (highly fictionalized) story?


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We here at Law Law Land are big fans of Halloween, the drunkest, sluttiest, most creative and fun-loving holiday of the year.  Law Law Land HQ itself is awash in cat ears and warlock coats today, and your editor is looking forward to a heaven-vs.-hell, angel-vs.-devil ping pong grudge match of epic proportions tonight.  But if you’re looking for a real fright on Halloween night, just consider some of the following truly scary cases and claims.

If the Past Is Never Dead, Does That Mean the Past Is Undead?

William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  Woody Allen-mouthpiece Owen Wilson less-famously said, in 2011’s Midnight in Paris, “The past is not dead!  Actually, it’s not even past.  You know who said that?  Faulkner.  And he was right.  And I met him, too.  I ran into him at a dinner party.”  And Faulkner’s estate is now infamously saying that, if you use Faulkner’s line (ish) in a movie, with attribution, you have broken the law.

Faulkner’s estate is suing Sony Pictures Classics for copyright infringement and trademark infringement, claiming that Midnight in Paris’s misquote of Faulkner’s famous aphorism from 1950’sRequiem for a Nun not only infringes their copyright, but also violates the federal trademark statute by deceiving viewers into believing that the movie was affiliated, endorsed, or authorized by the Faulkner estate.  So are Sony’s lawyers running scared into the night?  Not likely.  But the distant howls you might be hearing are actually the pained wails of frustrated intellectual property law professors everywhere.

(Special kudos to the usually-dry-as-a-skeleton Courthouse News Service for observing, “at risk of offending the shade, or estate, of Charles Dickens:  This is a far, far weirder thing than Sony has ever done.”)


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My daughter has always been squeamish about eyeballs.

Ask her to name the scariest movie of all time?  Who Framed Roger Rabbit, of course.  She saw it once (and only once) at the age of four, and the scene near the end, in which the flattened Judge Doom re-inflates himself and reveals the malevolent Toon lurking beneath his popped-out prosthetic eyeballs, scarred her for life.  And so, our family will always fast-forward past the melting of Nazi agent Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark, decline to mourn the loss of Mad-Eye Moody inHarry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Part I, and just steer clear of the absolute abomination that is Large Marge in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

I mention all this so that you will understand the sense of abject horror and dread I experienced when, several weeks ago, I drove to work down Motor Avenue and found myself face to face with a giant, eerie nun, her face as white as alabaster, crying (or bleeding?) black liquid from alien-like eyes.  It was a (thoroughly disturbing) billboard for American Horror Story: Asylum looming over the entrance to Fox Studios.  Adjacent to our beloved dog park.  Big as the Times Square Jumbotron.  I knew my daughter would freak out, and freak she did.

She insisted that I call the studio and demand that the billboard be removed immediately, which gave us the perfect opportunity to discuss that little thing called the First Amendment.  Once I got going, she quickly went from billboard-ed to bored, and ultimately resolved to cover her eyes with a sweatshirt if I would simply shut up.  But the issue stuck with me.  As an attorney, I’m comfortable with the fact that First Amendment expression should not be unduly chilled by a ten-year-old with a (perhaps unreasonable) eye phobia.  But the mom in me took umbrage at this offensive (or at least unsettling) billboard content.  Should Fox have the right to upset my kid on a daily basis in its attempt to bring more “eyeballs” to its advertisers?


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Q:  For some 10 years now, I’ve been trying to penetrate the 10 foot thick wall called “unsolicited.”  How do I get through it? I have no agent.

A:  We can answer your question, but frankly, you may not like what we’re going to say.  Unfortunately, that 10 foot thick wall is probably as old as the Great Wall of China and is equally as impenetrable.  For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of submitting a script to an individual, production company, studio or, god forbid, law firm only to have it returned to you with a letter classifying it as an “unsolicited submission,” we can give you a little background.


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Q:  I’m a writer/director.  I wrote a script that’s getting some traction.  I obviously want to sell it but on one condition:  I have to direct the movie.  I don’t think anyone else can do it justice…  A producer just presented me with an option agreement.  In our conversations, he agreed that I could be the director.  In the option agreement, it says that in the event the project receives financing and if a few other conditions are met, I’ll be engaged to direct the film on a “pay or play” basis.  I know that “pay or play” is a good thing so does this mean the producer is essentially agreeing that I’m the director?

A:  When I first started practicing entertainment law, I believed the term “Pay or Play” referred to the next hot NBC primetime game show, which I assumed would be hosted by Gallagher.  Fortunately for all of us, it’s not.  However, I’ve found that while it is a very commonly used contract term, and everyone wants it in their agreements, there is (as evidenced by your question) some confusion about the full extent of its implications.


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