Writer Claims Hollywood Talent Agency Stole Idea for The Purge

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Copyright Symbol in LightsWhenever a hit movie comes out, it’s not at all uncommon for someone to sue, claiming that the studio “stole” the idea.

Virtually all of these cases fail, whether brought under theories of copyright infringement or breach of contract.

Copyright Issues

Under copyright law, in order to prove infringement the plaintiff must prove that the defendant copied original elements from the plaintiff’s copyrighted work.

The plaintiff can show copying by showing:

  • That the defendant had access to the copyrighted work, and
  • That there are substantial similarities between the defendant’s work and the original elements of the plaintiff’s work.

Plaintiffs often fail to show “access” by failing to prove how an idea or script made its way to the studio or filmmakers.

However, even if there’s no direct evidence of access, a jury can consider evidence of “striking similarity” between two works that would make it unlikely that the defendant’s work was independently created.

In the 9th Circuit, the access and substantial similarity elements are linked by an “inverse ratio rule.” That means that a court will require “a lesser showing of substantial similarity if there is a strong showing of access.”

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Contract Issues

Plaintiffs in “idea theft” often contend that there was some kind of “implied contract” that they would be compensated for their ideas or scripts, if used.

However, it’s much easier for a plaintiff to prevail in an idea theft case if there’s an actual written contract. The most famous such case involved the humorist Art Buchwald.

Buchwald alleged that Paramount stole his script idea and turned it into the hit 1988 Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America.

In 1982, Buchwald had written a screenplay treatment in which:

A rich, educated, arrogant, extravagant, despotic African potentate comes to America for a state visit. … While in the United States, the potentate is deposed, deserted by his entourage and left destitute. He ends up in the Washington ghetto…

Paramount optioned the treatment, tried to develop the script, and then abandoned the project in 1985.

When Coming to America, with a similar story line, came out, Murphy was given the sole story credit and Buchwald was not paid.

Buchwald sued, and the California Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that Paramount’s movie was in fact similar to Buchwald’s treatment and thus that he was entitled to compensation for breach of contract. Buchwald and his partner were awarded $900,000.

The case became famous for exposing “Hollywood accounting.” The studio had claimed that although the movie earned $288 million at the box office it earned no “net profit” to which Buchwald was entitled to a share under this contract.

The Purge Case

In a recent case, the plaintiff is claiming both copyright infringement and breach of contract. What’s unusual is that he’s named a Hollywood talent agency as a defendant.

Plaintiff Douglas Jordan-Benel alleged that The Purge is based on a screenplay he wrote called Settler’s Day.

Benel’s manager sent his script to United Talent Agency (UTA) in 2011. A week later, one of the UTA agents emailed the manager that he was going to “pass” on the script because he had a difficult time “buying into the premise” of government-sanctioned violence.

In 2013, Universal released the hit movie The Purge, which has since spawned a sequel. The writer/director of The Purge is also represented by UTA, and Benel claimed that someone at UTA gave him his screenplay.

A federal judge in California ruled in February that Benel “appears to be the classic ‘idea man’” and found that:

UTA’s later alleged use of the idea is not sufficient to show that UTA voluntarily accepted the conveyance [of the script] on the condition that it had an obligation to pay for it.

The judge granted UTA’s motion to dismiss but gave Benel leave to amend his complaint, so the case continues.

If you think your idea was stolen…

If you believe that your idea was stolen by a movie studio, you’re facing an uphill battle to prove it. To learn more, you may wish to consult a copyright or entertainment attorney in your area.

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