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Another Hollywood “Idea Theft” Lawsuit Falls Flat

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Typewriter by rahego on Flickr

Image by rahego on Flickr

The woman who claimed the script of the film “Monster-in-Law” had “substantial similarities” with her own screenplay not only had her lawsuit dismissed but has also been ordered to pay the attorney fees for the movie’s producers and stars, which come to nearly $1 million.

Aspiring screenwriter Sheri Gilbert of Wilson, North Carolina had sued Jennifer Lopez, Jane Fonda, and others associated with the film about an overbearing, controlling mother-in-law. But U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled that the “vast differences in characters, plot, mood, and themes” far outweighed any potential similarities in the works. The judge also wrote that the “Plaintiff was only able to point to some generic similarities between the two works that were not  protected under copyright law.”

The law allows for winning parties in copyright infringement claims to recover attorney fees, and the judge felt the award was warranted in this case, writing that “Plaintiff’s lawsuit was objectively unreasonable and motivated by bad faith.” With the award, the judge is hoping to send a message “to deter Plaintiff, and those similarly situated, from prosecuting meritless claims for copyright infringement.”

Specifically, the judge found that the plaintiff, who was represented by her husband who is a licensed attorney, had “engaged in a concerted effort to make the present lawsuit as expensive as possible for Defendants,” including repeated amended complaints to avoid judgment on defendants’ motions to dismiss.

Gilbert had copyrighted three versions of a script about a meddling mother-in-law, but it is important to note that ideas cannot be copyrighted, only the expression of those ideas. Indeed, this is why many such “idea theft” lawsuits targeted at Hollywood executives and actors fail — and in this situation, expensively at that. But let’s face it: the idea of a meddling mother-in-law is hardly original anyway.

Gilbert has appealed the judge’s decision, including the award of attorney fees.

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January 26th, 2011 at 9:13 am

Posted in Intellectual Property

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