Copy Cats

Studios are awash in copyright suits. Why are they so hard to win?

  1. This summer, Americans spent five hundred and seventy-five million hours in darkened cinemas and saw, at most, two new things: the harrowing D Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan and the hair-gel joke in There’s Something About Mary. Yet as popcorn movies have become a tag-team-written jumble of curvy scientists, ninja studs, morphing cyborgs, and basement-loving psychos, one obscure writer after another has come forward to advance the claim that a studio stole his brainchild. Hollywood movies may never have seemed more derivative, but the copyright suits they inspire display an ingenuity and a nuanced concern for story development worthy of the young Orson Welles.

    Our sympathies in these cases tend to go to the little guy—to plaintiffs like Mark Dunn, a soft-spoken clerk at the New York Public Library, who is suing Paramount Studios, the producer Scott Rudin, and the screenwriter Andrew Niccol for $300 million. Dunn alleges that his play Frank’s Life, about the unwitting subject of a TV series, was secretly used as a blueprint by the creators of The Truman Show after they had rejected it as a potential movie. Dunn has earned less than $25,000 from his many years of writing for what he calls the “Off-Off-Broadway ghetto”; The Truman Show has grossed $125 million to date.

    Dunn’s suit lists 149 purported similarities between Frank’s Life and The Truman Show. That seems an overwhelming number, and Dunn’s lawyer, Carl Person, says that the two works’ resemblances make the suit ...