It’s every screenwriter’s worst nightmare that his or her idea might be someday stolen by a large conglomerate, and that the then-unknown writer will be left with very little in terms of recourse. Proving theft of an idea can be incredibly difficult, which is why issues such as copyright registration and nondisclosure agreements carry such significance within the industry.
Last week, in California federal court, screenwriters Stephanie Counts and Shari Gold filed a lawsuita against 21st Century Fox, alleging that Fox and related parties stole the concept for the hit TV show New Girl from a pilot and screenplay script they wrote back in 2006. The duo have also named show creator Elizabeth Meriwether, executive producer Peter Chernin, director Jake Kasdan and William Morris Endeavor as defendants in the suit. The lawsuit makes very hefty allegations that, though a network of communications, the idea for New Girl made its way to an agent at William Morris and was eventually given to Meriwether to recreate and pass off as her own. At this time, Fox has not commented on the allegations.
However, screenwriters who find themselves fearing that the large corporations could easily steal their projects needn’t be alarmed by this case, as there is no clear evidence thus far that the alleged theft actually occurred. As with most cases of this nature, the truth will be based on the facts as they arise during the discovery process.
The screenwriters who’ve filed suit bear a heavy burden in terms of proving the truth of their allegations. In the complaint, the writers assert that their scripts include numerous similarities, such as the creation of a script wherein a woman moves in with three male roommates, the idea to cast Zooey Deschanel as the lead, and a character whose initials are C.C. (a character in New Girl is nicknamed Cece). The suit also alleges that the male characters on the show bear significant similarities to the characters in the script.
In situations such as this, courts have historically sided with the defendants. This is because even in the case of similarities, there is typically not enough evidence on the screenwriter’s end to assert that the project was stolen. Should the New Girl case make it to trial, the types of things that will help the plaintiffs prove their case include actual documentation of correspondence concerning the script between named parties, actual replications from the script, or an admission from the defendants. However, even if there are numerous similarities as the plaintiffs assert, if the defendants can demonstrate a strong case for independent creation, it is highly unlikely the lawsuit will succeed.
In 2011, James Cameron was the subject of three lawsuits alleging he stole certain concepts to create the hit film Avatar. The court ultimately sided with Cameron for all three suits. Also, late last year, a California appeals court ruled against a man who sued New Line Cinema alleging that the New Line stole his idea, resulting in the 2005 film Wedding Crashers. If it’s so difficult to prove a major production house copied a screenplay to create a film, it seems even more unlikely that an unknown writer can successfully win a suit alleging that a network created an entire series based off of the screenplay concept.
Even if the items asserted in the New Girl suit are true, it doesn’t seem far fetched that it is solely coincidental. For instance, many young writers dream of casting Zooey Deschanel as the lead in a hit television series. Deschanel is widely known for her “quirky” persona; at the time of the alleged conflict she was already coming into her own as an actress. The initials C.C. are quite common, and the nickname Cece also seems to be a natural choice for a model. The idea of a woman moving in with male roommates isn’t far fetched, particularly in large cities where location is at a premium, and in a modern age where living with members of the opposite sex is a widely acceptable practice. It could also be a factor against the claimants that the effective date of copyright registration for their script is Dec. 13, 2013, more than two years after the air date of the pilot episode.
Screenwriters following this case should review it with a critical eye, and with the knowledge that even if these allegations prove to be true, script theft is extremely rare. Typically, there are numerous protections in place to ensure that studios can’t be accused of stealing ideas.
First of all, television networks and film production companies will often refuse to look at scripts from unknown or unrepresented talent. Even upon doing so, these companies often require the talent and talent representatives to sign an agreement absolving them of liability should a conflict arise. Studio heads understand they are taking a massive risk when they put their efforts into a script that is similar to another, and with that knowledge they will take many steps to prevent idea theft and the subsequent lawsuits that may cause.
Secondly, it’s commonplace for writers to come up with similar ideas. Typically, many of the things people opt to write about are signs of the times, eliciting a collective consciousness concerning the world we live in. Under United States law, a person cannot copyright an idea, because doing so would create massive limitations on the bounds of creative thinking.
However, a legal complaint is just that, and opens the door into further investigation. It is possible that facts may arise that implicate the defendants in this matter, but as it stands, it appears they have a tough case to prove.
ScreenCraft contributor Whitney Meers is a writer in NYC. Follow her on Twitter at @whitneymeers.