Recent entertainment news headlines have highlighted a couple of lawsuits that exemplify nearly exact opposite ends of the wide spectrum of types of lawsuits that seem to happen a lot in our industry. Without comment on any of the actual facts at issue within the actual cases on the docket, we can still look at their general approaches and why some lawsuits are extremely ill-advised and frivolous and other lawsuits are rooted in sound legal issues that need to be taken extremely seriously from either side of the debate.
It is NOT my opinion that...
Whenever a writer refers to newsworthy events as a springboard to discuss general aspects of approaches to lawsuits, there is the danger of being considered as commentary or opinion on those actual cases. Because very few people are privy to the specific details of an individual case most actual speculation or opinions expressed about them are misinformed, inaccurate, or downright missing the pertinent specifics that are key to fully understanding a case.
In every court case, the particulars unique to that case can have dramatically important bearing on how the law will play out. No one outside of those courtrooms can make any relatable, reliable comments about actual cases without full knowledge of all the details involved.
Nothing here should be construed as a commentary on any actual lawsuit’s positions or expected outcomes. But a generalized setting using only select particulars inspired by news headlines can still be of value to those considering their own situations or, like me, attempting to impart a bit of foresight and awareness of what’s possible.
What the headlines seem to indicate as the width of the spectrum of legal bases from several newsworthy cases
As is often pointed out, anyone can sue anyone for any reason, which is technically pretty much true. There is an extremely low bar to bringing a lawsuit, by design. We don’t want people to feel like there is no recourse for them in our modern legal system so the gates are kept pretty open. But just because you can sue doesn’t mean you’re going to win or that there couldn’t be harsh consequences for yourself or others involved if you’re not careful.
Given the above, people will bring lawsuits for a huge variety of reasons. Some recent headlines touch on what I consider polar extremes.
Suits brought from an emotional urge
There are times when you truly feel like you’ve been wronged by the actions of someone else. “There ought to be a law,” is a phrase coined for those times when it feels like you got screwed and there should be some way to make things right but you don’t know exactly what the law says about it yet. It feels wrong. Feeling you’ve been wronged and actually having been wronged aren’t always synonymous, though.
Sometimes the feeling swells despite the lack of an actual, legally recoupable offense. Through our own ignorance or mistake, we sometimes let the feeling fester and swell to the point of trying to do something about it. If we don’t take the time to stop and assess what is really going on and whether what we feel is a true reflection of events, we might be inclined to go off half-cocked and seek “justice” - not the best approach. Unfortunately, a LOT of lawsuits start out from this vague feeling of losing out.
It’s not necessarily a bad lawsuit that starts from here. But if you don’t find the law that strongly supports your feelings of injustice, pursuing a lawsuit can be a fool’s errand. And you have to be wary of attempting to shoehorn that cheated feeling into a legal claim that doesn’t fit well at all. Those endeavors seldom work out the best for anyone involved, nor do they really address the bad feelings that started it all.
There have been two recent headlines pointing to lawsuits that seem to come from this, “I feel cheated,” sensibility that I will use here as potential examples of going to court purely on your gut instincts. The first is the suit brought against Maria Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” song for using the same title as another song from a more regionally known songwriter, Andy Stone.
It seems, from the news reports I have glanced at about the case, that the claim is almost completely based on the shared title, not the lyrics or musical notation. If that is the case, it has the markings of shoehorning into copyright law an attempt to protect a title which, as I’ve covered here before, isn’t something you can own or protect, at least through copyright. Of course, I am not privy to any of the particulars of the case so I do not know how strong a legal standing either side may have that hasn’t made it to the headlines.
Similarly, suspect to gut feelings pushing you into court with less of a legal standing than you might need to win involves a recent claim that a pitch and pilot script is similar to a current Emmy nominated series. Here the creator of Abbott Elementary, Quinta Brunson and ABC are being sued by Christine Davis for claims against her own project’s pitch and pilot script.
Again, I haven’t attempted to discover the specifics of the claim beyond the attention getting headlines but as described, it sure seems like a, “they stole my idea,” line of reasoning. And if you’ve been reading my columns in the past, I covered that mistaken approach here before as well. Again, trying to discern a case’s true merits through news reports is bound to miss the details and there may be specifics that make a particular case more likely than most to succeed. Time and the courts’ decisions will bare out the proper results.
Suits brought from a well-considered legal standing
The flip side of the coin from the types of suits we’ve just discussed are where the legal standing of the plaintiff is well researched and grounded in actual statutes and laws that establish a strong case to pursue retribution for a provable wrong. These cases are rarer, it seems, likely because they take a studied approach to researching exactly the wrong within the law with a potential for retributive justice. But when the wrong and solution can be legally identified and the recourse is pursued properly and astutely, they can be much more successful than just going with your gut.
Relatively recent changes in copyright law have allowed a group of these types of lawsuits to emerge. They involve a very technical and formality heavy area of statutes that define copyright assignment termination rights. In cursorily scouring the headlines it seems such a legal approach might be the basis for the suit the heirs of the source material behind the original 1986 movie Top Gun, brought against the makers of the recent sequel, Top Gun: Maverick.
The concept of termination rights were brought about by changes in copyright law to address creators’ remorse in selling their works early in their careers or improperly thinking about the future in relation to their works. It isn’t an easy road to walk. It requires a lot of technical timing, proper notices and procedures followed, and a lot of negotiation and waiting, but can be a recourse for some who really want to regain control over their original works.
When it happens, it allows an author to reclaim the rights they granted to a purchaser 35 years after the sale. The purchaser can still make money during the 35-year span and continue to profit off of anything created from those rights while they had them. And the hoops you have to jump through can be a little bizarre, like you can’t tell the purchaser you plan on exercising the termination right until 25 years have gone by and then you have a window of years to negotiate first with the purchaser to renew or lose their rights. But, because termination rights are non-waivable, it does mean that the oft-used term in contracts of “in perpetuity” no longer means forever. It should be read now as, “at least 35 years.”
Suing from the heart versus suing from a point of law
I say that these two groups of examples are at opposite ends of a spectrum of lawsuits, but the truth is that elements of each approach are usually part of every suit brought to court. Nearly every “I want to sue,” instance is prefaced by at least a little bit of searching the actual legal potential theories that would fit best in making the claims. And nearly every by the book statutory grounded case has started with an emotional grumbling at some point where the plaintiff thinks, “this just isn’t right.” It’s all somewhere on the spectrum.
Suing on grounds that aren’t really there
If the ground of suing from the gut is so shaky, why do people do it? There can be lots of reasons that have less to do with legal standing in play. It can be initiated as a ploy to inconvenience the other side, hoping they’ll settle instead of incur the cost and time suck actually winning the case would take them. It could be a calculated strategy to raise publicity for your own works by getting them in the news, even knowing eventually the lawsuit isn’t going to go your way. Or you could actually feel you’ve been harmed and don’t understand or don’t care that the legal standing of the other side means they are actually in the right and you aren’t, no matter how bad it feels.
For the plaintiff, you could end up not only owing your own lawyer and legal fees, but can be held accountable for the legal expenses of the defendant as well in certain circumstances. As a frivolous litigant, any reputation you may have had in the industry vanishes and you’ll find it very hard to ever “work in this town again,” because of it. (This is why most of these kinds of suits are brought by people who don’t really have a reputation in the industry and never expect to have any other shot at the pie.)
Using changes in the law to your advantage
Here, a savvy plaintiff, fully aware of the changes in the law to their advantage are able to reverse a bad deal in their past and recover their rights. If the studio or production company isn’t keeping on the ball, they could find themselves suddenly in a completely different relationship to the IP they thought they controlled. Embarrassing at best, expensive and costly in other ways at worst.
Fully investigating esoteric potential paths for legal recoupment is time consuming and difficult. And even the best laid legal arguments are subject to the rigors of court and a jury or judicial verdict. A single slip up on procedure or a juror or judge misunderstanding or interpreting the law slightly differently from your point of view could still end up with the results not in your favor. Then all that time and effort was wasted in the end. That’s the risk of any lawsuit, really. If it was all clear cut and dry, then you probably could have settled things outside of a court in the first place.
Be aware of the actual law involved
As we’ve established at the start, anyone can sue anyone else for anything. It depends on how strong the case is within the law or how determined the other side is as to whether it gets resolved quickly or drags on for years. Also, the law changes and you should be aware of any changes in the law that could impact your rights.
Be aware of the motives of the other side
If you can fathom why someone would want to sue you, you are well on your way to circumvent that issue long before it gets litigious. For example, the whole so called “life rights” negotiations are actually pre-suit settlements of a sort with built-in safeguards to avoid the interruptions a lawsuit would incur.
If you can figure out the other side’s feelings before they have a chance to get hurt, you can save everyone a lot of headaches. Will such awareness keep you out of a lawsuit? As always, it depends.