“Suit Filed Against Warner Bros. in Screenplay Theft”

It’s about the Clint Eastwood film, Trouble With The Curve. The Times story, by Michael Cieply, begins thusly:

LOS ANGELES — Warner Brothers responded harshly on Thursday to a legal complaint over the authorship of its Clint Eastwood baseball movie, “Trouble With the Curve.” But its opponents did not back down.

In an unusually sharp response to a lawsuit filed here last week, the studio publicly called the accusations of script theft “reckless and false.”

The studio and several of its business partners also said they had overwhelming evidence that the original script was created more than 15 years ago, without foul play, by its credited author, a virtually unknown screenwriter named Randy Brown. But Gerard P. Fox, a lawyer for a plaintiff, instantly dismissed the supposed evidence as “manufactured.”

Reading the article brought back a couple of memories. When I worked for Paramount Pictures, I read a lot of script submissions in various forms. Usually I’d reject them, but not with a simple, curt form note. As a budding writer myself, I thought it’d be unkind and unhelpful not to give my personal reasons for the rejection, so in the kindest possible way I’d offer a little comment.

Then I had a conversation with our in-house lawyer, Norman Flicker. Norman told me that I really should not be reading — or even opening envelopes containing — unsolicited screenplays, because I could reject a screenplay and ten years later, when Paramount produced a film with what the writer considered a similar story line, writer would sue for the theft of his idea. “Paramount read my screenplay in 1971 and knew the whole thing, and rejected it —and here’s that rejection letter from one Naomi Fein (undoubtedly complicit) — and the company stole my story!!”

Around that same time, a producer friend pointed out to me that there were only eight ur-stories on this earth, and every piece of fiction was a version of one of those eight stories. So most of the possible lawsuits in which I was innocently getting myself potentially entangled were nonsense. At least, in reality they were nonsense, even if the writer-plaintiff truly believed his story had been ripped off. But I don’t think any of the writers I rejected sued the company. I hope not; otherwise, I’ll feel peeved that I was kind.

Norman also told me that Paramount would often pay off these guys with a quick $2500, while explicitly admitting nothing, just to get rid of the thing without a costly legal fight. (In retrospect, I can now see that there were people out there who subsisted on nonsense lawsuits of this kind, preying on companies with deep pockets and the general philosophy of buying off plaintiffs with pennies rather than dollars.)

The second of my memories recalled by reading the article on the Trouble With The Curve lawsuit was in every sense more spectacular.

From the early 1990’s through 2003 I worked for a small group of lawyers who became the law firm of Cochran, Neufeld and Scheck. The “Cochran” was Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr.

The law firm primarily represented plaintiffs in civil rights cases (and, of course, wrongful conviction and imprisonment). Johnnie took on other types of cases outside CNS.

One day, he came back from a trial in Florida and with a certain degree of amazement mixed in with great glee, told a bunch of us what had happened. He and an old friend and colleague had represented a young man in a lawsuit against a big entertainment company. The young man, who had been an athlete I think, had developed an elaborate business plan for a sports theme park. He had, I believe, gotten all the available protections for his idea (I’m not sure whether this was trademark, copyright or patent) and had presented it to that huge entertainment company.

The young man had had numerous meetings with the big company’s executives and had received a certain amount of encouragement. Then, they rejected his idea. And developed it themselves. So he retained, first, Johnnie’s Southern lawyer friend who in turn brought Johnnie in for the trial.

The big company’s condescending, monarchic defense was, as is Warner Bros’ in the Curve case, “We [the royal We] don’t steal ideas, this was our idea,” and blah blah blah.

As loath as I am to use clichés, I must. This was truly a David versus Goliath battle. Especially because the trial was held in what was essentially a Company Town, i.e., every potential juror was likely to be an employee of the company.

So here’s what Johnnie told us that day at the office: The trial had gone on I don’t remember for how long. Nor do I remember whether the big company had at any point offered a meaningful settlement. They had utterly dissed this young man.

A few night’s previously, while the jury was still deliberating, the big company called Johnnie’s colleague and made a settlement offer: $25 million. Johnnie’s colleague and their client talked it over … and turned it down. (Johnnie thought it was a really good offer and expressed astonishment that they were rejecting it.)

The next day the jury came in with the verdict: they found for Johnnie’s client and awarded him $450,000,000.

That’s why Johnnie was walking around the office telling all of us about this in a semi-daze. Oh sure maybe they all went back to the negotiating table and came up with a number somewhere between $450 million and $25 million, but still: what a victory, huh?

So when I read this article about the Trouble With The Curve lawsuit, and the statements Warner Bros. made, I was thinking, “Gee, guys, maybe you’d better study this situation carefully and not wait to go to trial, even in L.A., your Company Town.”

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