Copyright Infringement & The Truman Show

A topical article from today’s NYTimes just before tonight’s Academy Awards show: A Movie Pondered Reality. A Lawsuit Questions Its Originality.

Mr. Mowry, an independent producer, contends that he originated the idea as well as much of the language, setting and characters that made their way into “The Truman Show” in a script he calls “The Crew.” It was written in the early 1980’s and first copyrighted in 1986, five years before Mr. Niccol’s first treatment, or synopsis, for “The Truman Show” was registered with the Writers Guild of America.

[…] Regardless of how compelling the evidence may be, cases of this sort are tough to prove. “You have to show access, how they got the script,” said Otto L. Haselhoff, a lawyer in Los Angeles. “You have to determine how much money or revenue is derived specifically from the similarities in the material.” Mr. Haselhoff said that in 2001 he helped a screenwriter, Bill Van Daalen, attain an “amicably resolved” settlement with Adam Resnick and Paramount Pictures in a copyright infringement case involving the script for the film “Lucky Numbers.”

“Sure, plaintiffs can win, but usually what happens is they settle before they go to trial, and a condition is that the settlement remain confidential,” Mr. Haselhoff said. “That’s why you never hear about them.” He paused. “They are great cases if you are representing the defendants,” he said, because movie studios “can pay a lot of money and have got a lot of defenses and theory under the law.”

The Mowry case appears to be developing an audience among film industry buffs, who see it as a whodunit dealing with the confusing matters of copyright infringement. Joy R. Butler, a lawyer in Washington, has been talking about Mr. Mowry’s case in seminars she gives on legal matters of concern to creative artists. Examining the court documents, she said, she found that “the entire concept of ‘The Truman Show’ is present in the plaintiff’s copyrighted work.”

[…] Though creative concepts and ideas are not protected by copyright laws, the unique expression of the idea is. “I have no personal involvement in this case, but the reason I mention it in my seminar is it represents a very good illustration of the separation of idea, which is not protectable by copyright law, and the expression of the idea,” Ms. Butler said. “If his case was about just another screenplay, his ‘The Crew,’ about a man trapped in a fictitious world, that would represent only his basic idea, and would not be protectable. But Mr. Mowry cites numerous examples of verbatim copying.”

[..] And he still dreams. Lately, Mr. Mowry has begun thinking he might like to adapt his “Crew” script for the stage. Why not?

Well, said Mr. Heller, his lawyer, there could be a risk in that: “Would Craig’s ‘The Crew’ be subjected to copyright infringement on the part of the people from ‘The Truman Show’?”