September 3, 2003
WRITERS’ CLAIM AGAINST AARON SORKIN DISMISSED
by Chrys Wu, paralegal to Mark Litwak
Writers Kyle Morris and William Richert lost their case before a New York federal court. They wrote a treatment and script called “The President Elopes,” which Castle Rock Entertainment agreed to co-produce. Castle Rock bought the property after they greenlighted Aaron Sorkin’s script, “The American President.”
“The American President” went on to make a solid showing at the box office. “The President Elopes” was never produced. Morris and Richert thought the two projects were substantially similar and asked a WGA arbitration panel to determine if they should receive shared writing credit for “The American President.” The WGA arbitrators determined Sorkin deserved sole writing credit.
Morris and Richert then sued in New York’s federal court, alleging Castle Rock had purchased their property to essentially block its production while filming Sorkin’s project. The writers also claimed breach of contract against Castle Rock for failure to pay additional compensation for “The American President”; copyright infringement by Castle Rock, Sorkin, and Warner Bros., for “The West Wing,” which Sorkin writes; and accused Sorkin and others of conspiracy to defraud the WGA arbitration panel.
A federal district judge has dismissed the case without trial, stating first that the writers were never entitled to make a copyright claim since they had written “The President Elopes” under a work-for-hire agreement and had thereby signed away their copyright. Further, as Castle Rock then properly purchased the copyright to the material, Castle Rock was the rightful copyright holder.
The attorney for Morris and Richert argued that the copyright should revert to the writers as it was “unconscionable” for Castle Rock to own the rights simply to take the script out of production. The judge disagreed, both because “American President” and “President Elopes” had only “superficial similarities” and because the termination clause in Morris and Richert’s contract stipulated that Castle Rock would retain the copyright in the event of termination.
The judge ruled that the breach of contract claim also failed, since the original Castle Rock contract stated additional compensation was only due if the writers were entitled to shared writing credit, which the WGA arbitration panel ruled they should not receive.
As for conspiracy to defraud the WGA panel, the judge determined this was a meritless claim.
Morris v. Castle Rock Entertainment, Inc., 246 F.Supp.2d 290, 2003 U.S.Dist.LEXIS 2420 (S.D.N.Y. 2003)
Mark litwak TO Teach at UCLA and in Seattle This MonthOn Saturday, September 6, Mark Litwak will be teaching “Financing Independent Features and Negotiating a Distribution Agreement” at UCLA. Mark will discuss how financing can be obtained through pre-sales, debt, and limited partnerships. He will also review negotiating tactics, typical contract terms, cross-collaterization, and creative accounting. Handouts include a distribution contract, articles, a self-defense checklist, and other materials. To register, visit http://www.uclaextension.edu, click on the “Quick Enroll” tab and type in “N9506U” in the box that says “Reg #.”
On September 12 and 13, Mark Litwak will be in Seattle on a speaking tour to lecture and answer questions for screenwriters and filmmakers.
Washington Lawyers for the ArtsAt 11:45 a.m. on September 12, Mark will be speaking at the City Centre Building, 1420 Fifth Ave., 4th Floor Conference Room in Seattle. He’ll be discussing "Copyright Law for Literary Artists & Filmmakers: Practical Tips for Protecting Artistic Works." The brown bag lunch seminar is organized by Washington Lawyers for the Arts; MCLE credit may be available. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, postal address, email address and phone number, call (206) 328-7053, or visit the website: http://www.wa-artlaw.org/lecture.html#brownbag9.
Northwest Screenwriters GuildFrom 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on September 12, Mark will be conducting an informal discussion on "Protecting Your Work from Theft and Prevent Legal Pitfalls" at the Mercer Island Community Center (MICC). The event is hosted by the Northwest Screenwriters Guild. No advance registration is required. Call (206) 842-7995 for more information or visit the NWSG website: http://www.nwsg.org.
The Indie Film GroupOn September 13, Mark will conduct a one-day workshop on "Self-Defense for the Writer & Filmmaker." Mark will describe common abuses and how to prevent them. He’ll also review how to secure underlying rights to a story and the remedies available should you find your project in trouble. This workshop is organized by The Indie Film Group and Circle Rock Productions. For more information or to register online go to http://www.indiefilmgroup.com or call toll free: 1-866-484-3434.