Home » Copyright/Intellectual Property » Disney Accused Of Plundering ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ In Copyright Lawsuit

Disney Accused Of Plundering ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ In Copyright Lawsuit

17 November 2017

From Deadline Hollywood:

A. Lee Alfred, II and Ezequiel Martinez, Jr. allege that Disney lifted “copyrighted expression of themes, settings, dialogue, characters, plot, mood, sequence of events” from their 2000 spec script entitled Pirates of the Caribbean.” Unlike many such similar suits, the duo say they submitted the script while working with Disney on their Red Hood project that the studio was interested in. During that period from late 1999 to 2000, the two writers and their producer Tova Laiter say they worked closely with Disney’s Brigham Taylor, Josh Harmon and Michael Haynes, among others. In fact, they say Disney got them into the Writers Guild as work progressed on the never-made Red Hood.

Then, soon after Laiter handed the Pirates script and a sizzle reel to Taylor on August 9, 2000, things started to sink in the relationship with Disney – especially after a copy of the screenplay and original artwork was supposedly spied on the coffee table in Taylor’s office and they were quickly hustled out of the room.

. . . .

“The opportunity to have a major film studio, such as Defendants, take a screenwriter’s original spec screenplay and turn the work into a major motion picture is the ultimate dream,” states the complaint filed Tuesday in Colorado federal court against almost every corporate aspect of Disney. “A. Lee Alfred, II and Ezequiel Martinez, Jr. almost realized that dream, but they this dream quickly turned into a nightmare, when their original work, ‘The Screenplay,’ was intentionally copied and commercially exploited by Defendant’s, creating a billion-dollar franchise, with no credit or compensation to Alfred or Martinez.”

. . . .

Very soon after that meeting in Taylor’s office, according to the suit, the writers were paid out for their Red Hood work and basically put back on a plane to Colorado, their dalliance with Disney seemingly over.

. . . .

“This complaint is entirely without merit, and we look forward to vigorously defending against it in court,” said Disney on the lawsuit against the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced five-film series based on the theme park ride that first appeared at Disneyland in 1967. Having just registered “their original works of authorship with the U.S. Copyright Office on October 3rd, 2017,” the plaintiffs do not offer any explanation as to why it took them nearly two decades to recognize a copyright infringement.

Link to the rest at Deadline Hollywood

PG says you don’t have to be Disney to become tangled up in this type of litigation.

When PG worked for a large advertising agency during the Mad Men days, instructions to employees who received creative ideas in a letter or other writing from any person outside of the agency went something like this:

  1. As soon as the employee realizes the content of a letter, document, etc., he/she will immediately stop reading and mark the place in the letter where they stopped.
  2. The employee will immediately place the letter into an envelope and securely seal the envelope.
  3. The employee will hand-deliver the envelope to the legal department, tell one of the lawyers what it contains and be available to answer questions in the event it is necessary to prepare an affidavit describing the entire sequence of events.

So what’s an author to do?

Many authors are quite comfortable in providing help to other authors, especially if they write in the same genre. Such help often includes reading first drafts, helping with plot structure, etc.

PG doesn’t want to interfere with these collegial and helpful practices. In the large majority of such cases, there is no real copyright risk. However, he suggests that authors exercise a little caution.

This is not legal advice, but here are some tips to consider:

  • Don’t be afraid to keep early drafts, outlines, character sketches, ebook files, etc., for a long time.
    • If you’re a paper person, buy some storage boxes and keep your old papers in a closet, garage, storage locker, etc. When you win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the archivist at some large institution will thank you.
    • If you’re a computer person, save digital copies of your working files, drafts, etc., in permanent digital form – DVD’s are inexpensive and will hold many, many pages of your books.
    • Storing copies in the cloud will also work. Yes, it might be possible to change the dates on some files, but computer forensics experts are pretty good at detecting such modifications and if you’re in litigation, indications that you tampered with evidence can cause a truckload of troubles to fall on your head.
  • If a friend tells you about a story he/she is writing that sounds similar to a book you’re working on,
    • Tell your friend there are some similarities between the two plots so it’s clear you are already working on your story and you don’t have anything to hide. During this conversation, you don’t have to act like you’re talking to the secret police. You can be friendly.
    • Don’t add anything distinctive to your MS that your friend told you about unless it’s already in your MS.
    • You might send emails to a couple of your uninvolved friends or associates describing what has happened.
    • Save your MS as it existed on the date of your conversation with your author friend in at least a couple of different places.
    • Think twice about providing reading services, editing, advice, etc., on your friend’s book until after yours is published.
    • If your book is going to be traditionally published, send an email or letter to your editor at the publisher explaining the situation. Keep a copy for yourself. Your publisher may have a process it wants to use in handling these types of situations.
      • Under typical traditional publishing contracts, if there is a legal dispute about copyright ownership and the publisher is named in litigation, you’ll be obligated to pay the publisher’s legal expenses in addition to your own.
  • Copyright does not protect ideas or concepts, only the expression of those ideas.
    • Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl gets boy has been used zillions of times in books and movies and is not protected by copyright. All the standard plot and story structures have already been used many times and are not protected.
    • Unique details – usually many more than one – are where copyright can begin to come into play.

Again, this is not legal advice. Copyright infringement disputes are often very fact-specific, so general statements are just an overview and specific elements of the works may result in an ultimate outcome that is different than might be anticipated under general statements of the law.

Copyright/Intellectual Property

9 Comments to “Disney Accused Of Plundering ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ In Copyright Lawsuit”

  1. Thanks for all the good advice here. I do happen to keep daily copies of all my works in progress indefinitely, backed up in multiple locations, and now I’m kind of happy that I do.

  2. I’m sorry, these guys need to be able to point out something they had at or before the movie came out – this is way too little too late.

    (I did have someone try to tell me I was plagiarising another sci-fi writer. Didn’t hear any more from them when I pointed out that I wrote mine in 2005 (and there was a yahoo group talking about it at that time) and this other ‘story’ suddenly appeared ten years later …)

  3. Thanks for the not-legal-advice, PG. Lots of good points there.

  4. One other piece of advice. Don’t assume that you are safe, because you’ll never be famous. Fame is fickle – it can decide to make anyone a target.

    Some people don’t even care whether you are someone like Disney that can “afford” to give them a boatload of money, either – they’ll ruin you just for fun.

  5. I understand most legacy publishing outfits prefer to register the copyright for you, but an Indie can register a rough draft (uploaded online, for a small fee) with the copyright office long before sharing the manuscript or publishing it. I often do this because my rough draft is already 95% of what the finished product will become. I’m not a lawyer, but I certainly hope this would hold up in court as evidence.

    The Writer’s Guild also has an online manuscript registration service. For a fee, you can upload and store the file (without registering the copyright). They store it and date stamp it with their registration info, which could come in handy later. Again, not sure about the legal issues involved. I’d love to hear PG’s expert opinion…

    • Timely register your script’s copyright with the US Copyright Office before publication, before distributing it, before shopping it around, before sharing it, etc.

      If you’re the sole freelance/independent (non-WFH) author/writer and only using your own original material (not including third-parties, including those in the Public Domain), you can use the eCO’s (on-line registration) Single Application at $35. If there are two or more authors or otherwise, you’ll register using the eCO’s Standard Application at $55. This is current as of November 2017.

      The term of your (registered) copyright will last for your life plus an additional 70-years. Once your copyright application has been cleared, it will be included in the Copyright Office’s public database that everyone can access.

      If you register your work before publication or within five-years of first-publication, you’re granted “presumptive proof” that you authored the script and own its corresponding copyright. If you materially lie on your copyright registration application, you’re liable for a $2500 fine.

      IMO, registering creative works with the US Copyright Office is the best way to “time-stamp” and prove your authorship vs. registering with a guild or others. However, if you have additional funds, register with the guild after submitting your application to the US Copyright Office.

  6. Disney Accused Of Plundering ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ In Copyright Lawsuit

    When I saw the title, I thought this would be a report of some creative accounting. THAT would have been a compelling read.

  7. The problem is that Disney does have a long history of “borrowing” from other people. They pay some off (which is fine) but ignore others (which is not). This has given them a really bad reputation.

    For example, it was always fairly obvious that Pirates of the Caribbean was strongly influenced by Tim Powers’ book On Stranger Tides. But they bought the rights to his book and made another Pirates movie out of it, so that worked out for him. Same thing with Robin McKinley’s Beauty: I understand she eventually got a little something from Disney, but it was embarrassing how much they “borrowed.”

    OTOH, there’s a lot of bitterness about the way The Lion King ripped off the old Japanese anime Simba the White Lion. To the point of copying visuals. The creators were gracious about it, since they felt obligation to Disney as an inspiration, but it was sleazy.

    Obviously nobody wants to cut off creative freedom, and a little bit of theft here and there is just dipping soup out of the story pot. But there are limits, and Disney frequently passes them.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.