Image: Bill Murray
Focus Features
Bill Murray stars in the 2005 film "Broken Flowers." A screenwriter is suing the producers of the film, saying they stole ideas from his screenplay.
By Jerry Cobb Reporter
CNBC
updated 5/30/2006 4:16:09 PM ET 2006-05-30T20:16:09

While Hollywood loudly complains about piracy, some say the industry is turning a blind eye to rampant thievery within its own ranks. A growing number of lawsuits accuse the studios of stealing screenplays.

One of those was brought by Reed Martin, who slaved over his screenplay while teaching film marketing at Columbia University and New York University. After ten years, he got a big break: a Hollywood talent manager read his script and loved it.

"And he agreed to send it around to actors in the industry,” said Martin. “He asked me to make up a list of people I'd like to have in the film and I gave him my top choices -- among them Bill Murray -- and he said he'd try to make it happen for me."

But after the initial flurry of interest in his script, Martin’s phone stopped ringing. Months later, he got devastating news.

"I started to hear that a similar film was in production,” he said. “And that I was potentially dead in the water."

The similar film turned out to be "Broken Flowers," starring Bill Murray and directed by the pioneering independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. The plot and characters were nearly identical to Martin's script. 

"When I saw the film,” he said, “I was shocked to see that we have five girlfriends: one who has died, a former girlfriend who lives with bikers, another girlfriend who keeps a photograph of a Labrador retriever, the cat scene, the comedic nude scene of the film ... "

Convinced he had been ripped off, Martin filed suit against Jarmusch and Focus Features, which produced and distributed the film. His attorney, John Marder, of the Los Angeles law firm Manning and Marder, says screenplays are stolen all the time in Hollywood. And the studios and producers who steal can pretty much get away with it, he said.

"They simply exclude the writer -- the person that brought them this valuable property -- develop it themselves and then hide behind copyright,” said Marder. “They say, ‘Hey your ideas weren't protected, whether we stole them or not you have no claim.’”

Federal copyright law doesn't cover ideas -- only the specific expression of an idea. That means by simply changing a few things in someone's script, someone else can make it different enough to legally call it their own.  

But in a recent case involving the Miramax movie "Rounders" a California appeals court ruled that, while a stolen screenplay isn't always copyright infringement, it can be a breach of contract.

"The court says you don't actually have to have a contract -- they're going to imply it,” said Marder. “If you're a producer and you're meeting with an author to hear his idea, you're doing it because you want to buy it and you're going to pay for it."

Marder says Reed Martin had an implied contract when he pitched his screenplay and that the makers of "Broken Flowers" breached it by making an identical movie without paying him a dime.

If a court agrees, the impact on Hollywood could be huge, according to Aaron Moss, an attorney with the Los Angels firm Greenberg Glusker.

"The concern is that if somebody pitches a script and the studio ends up making a movie that's not substantially similar -- and yet there are certain individual ideas that are the same -- are they going to be held liable?" said Moss.

Neither Focus Features nor representatives for Jim Jarmusch would comment on the "Broken Flowers" suit.

A similar case involving the script for "The Last Samurai" has also been filed, and a wave of similar stolen screenplay suits may not be far behind.

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