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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Jordan-Benel v. Universal City Studios, Inc.

District Court allows screenwriter’s suit alleging feature film The Purge was based on his screenplay, Settler’s Day, to proceed, denying defendants’ anti-SLAPP motion because acts supporting plaintiff’s implied contract claim were not based on defendants’ First Amendment activity, and finding with respect to copyright claim that plaintiff plausibly alleged defendants had access to his work.

Douglas Jordan-Benel, the author of the screenplay Settler’s Day, sued Universal Studios, United Talent Agency, James DeMonaco (the writer-director of the motion picture The Purge), and other entities involved in the production of the movie, alleging that the film was based in substantial part on Settler’s Day. Plaintiff’s claims included copyright infringement, contributory copyright infringement (against UTA), breach of an implied-in-fact contract based on the submission of the idea for Settler’s Day, and a request for a declaratory judgment for credit and payment arising out of the distribution of The Purge.

In support of his claims, plaintiff alleged his manager contacted two agents at UTA about Settler’s Day, and that one of the agents requested that the manager send the script to both agents, purportedly for the dual purposes of representing plaintiff as his agent and selling the Settler’s Day script to another UTA client. Plaintiff also alleged that UTA accepted the Settler’s Day script “on behalf of” its client, writer-director DeMonaco and his production company, and that the other defendants obtained the Settler’s Day script either because UTA sent the script to DeMonaco, or because the script made its way to the owner of one of the other defendant entities.

Defendants moved to strike plaintiff’s claims under the California Anti-SLAPP statute, as well as to dismiss the complaint on various other grounds. Noting that in order to prevail on an anti-SLAPP motion to strike, a defendant must make an initial showing that the act giving rise to the claim was “in furtherance of the right of petition or free speech,” the court found that defendants did not satisfy this threshold requirement because the act giving rise to plaintiff’s claim under Desny v. Wilder was defendants’ alleged breach of an implied-in-fact contract – the failure to pay the plaintiff for his script – not the production and distribution of The Purge. Plaintiff “does not seek to prevent First Amendment conduct, he merely expects to be appropriately compensated according to an agreement, the subject of which happens to fall within the anti-SLAPP statute.” The court found that “the Defendants’ argument would render every contract claim involving any form of creative activity subject to anti-SLAPP,” a position which the court rejected.

Addressing the motions to dismiss, the district court concluded that plaintiff’s breach of implied contract claim could proceed because he plausibly alleged that he had conditioned the presentation of his idea on payment prior to providing the Settler’s Day script to UTA. He also adequately alleged that, according to the custom and practice in the industry, defendants were aware that his submission was conditional, and accepted that condition by receiving and using the Settler’s Day script. The court also found that plaintiff plausibly alleged that UTA had the authority to bind its clients with respect to any agreement with plaintiff regarding the submission, and therefore denied DeMonaco’s motion to dismiss the idea submission claim.

The district court concluded that the plaintiff also had adequately stated claims for copyright infringement, largely rejecting the defendants’ contention that plaintiff failed to allege that the defendants had access to the Settler’s Day script. Finding that plaintiff had pleaded more than “bare corporate receipt” of the script and, in light of DeMonaco’s relationship with UTA at the time of the submission and the “relatively short interval” between plaintiff’s submission and the release of The Purge, the court concluded that plaintiff’s allegation that the script was passed along to DeMonaco was not implausible. The district court also denied UTA’s motion to dismiss the claim for contributory copyright infringement, concluding that the plaintiff’s allegations that UTA distributed the Settler’s Day script so that DeMonaco could make The Purge were sufficient.

And finally, the court granted defendants’ motion to strike plaintiff’s claims for statutory damages and attorney’s fees, because the plaintiff’s work had not been registered prior to the publication of defendants’ first film. Plaintiff sought statutory damages and attorney’s fees only with respect to the sequel to defendants’ film, which was published after the registration of plaintiff’s work, but the court held that also to be barred because of lack of registration prior to publication of defendants’ original work.

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