March 29, 2005

Clearing Copyrights: Movie Scripts & History [12:00 pm]

Historical Epic Is Focus of Copyright Dispute

In a letter this month, a lawyer for James Reston Jr., author of “Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade,” accused the studio of violating American and international copyright law by using “events, characters, scenes, descriptions and character tensions” in the film that were “strikingly similar” to his narrative history.

A lawyer for the studio responded last week with a five-page rebuttal that said the creators of “Kingdom of Heaven,” to be released on May 6, had never read Mr. Reston’s book. The letter added: “The works are not substantially similar. In fact they are completely dissimilar, other than having in common some elements that are historically authentic.”

But Mr. Reston’s lawyer, Timothy DeBaets, said his client would decide this week whether to pursue a lawsuit, since he was convinced that his painstaking work over three years - including research in original sources in the Library of Congress and several Arab countries - had been lifted by the screenwriter William Monahan, who was hired by Mr. Scott.

“The key thing in the letter is, they say no one read it,” Mr. DeBaets said. “We don’t believe that, and we have evidence to the contrary. I think they read Jim’s book and took material from there, and after the fact it’s easy to run around and find stuff, since it’s history.”

[...] Michael J. Plonsker, a lawyer with the Los Angeles firm Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan who litigates such cases, said winning them was difficult but not impossible.

“History is not copyrightable,” Mr. Plonsker said. “But if the manner in which you tell about a historical event is a particular expression of character or sequence of events, that is copyrightable. If you can show that the defendant had access and that the works are substantially similar, which is the legal standard, then you can win.”

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