Friday, April 26, 2013

A lost fight over the lost script for LOST series - an Idea is as free as the air

On April 4, 2013, Second Appellate District issued an opinion in Spinner v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., Case No. B239229, coming out, of course, from Los Angeles Superior Court. This is a case regarding a fight over the rights to LOST television series. In its "Facts" section, the court described the inception of the series in great detail, which in itself is an interesting story.

In short, Mr. Spinner claimed that he first submitted a version of "L.O.S.T." script to ABC back in 1977, and that the series, produced in early 2000s, reflected, or were based on, his script. Mr. Spinner sued for restoring his rights to the series' intellectual property.

The court disagreed with Mr. Spinner and the appellate court affirmed. In the Facts section, it was disclosed that the creators of the 2000s version of LOST never heard of Mr. Spinner prior to his lawsuit and never saw his script. ABC searched for a script's copy and found no sign of it either. In other words, the 1977 LOST script was lost.

The decision starts its discussion with a quote that, unless an idea is a subject to an express or implied contract, «“The general rule of law is, that the noblest of human productions -- knowledge, truths ascertained, conceptions, and ideas -- become, after voluntary communication to others, free as the air to common use.” (Desny v. Wilder (1956) 46 Cal.2d 715, 731-732» (my emphasis).

Since there is no express contract here, the court applied the following 3-part test to see, if there can be found an implied contract on this "submission of an idea": «to prevail on a cause of action for breach of implied-in-fact contract, plaintiffs must show (1) they clearly conditioned the submission of their ideas on an obligation to pay for any use of their ideas; (2) the defendants, knowing this condition before the plaintiffs disclosed the ideas, voluntarily accepted the submission of the ideas; and (3) the defendants found the ideas valuable and actually used them -- that is, the defendants based their work substantially on the plaintiffs‟ ideas, rather than on their own ideas or ideas from other sources. (Mann v. Columbia Pictures, Inc. (1982) 128 Cal.App.3d 628, 646-647 & fn. 6 (Mann).)»

To be exact, the court focused only on the third element, the use. Another layer of assumption was then granted to the plaintiff (first was in assuming the implied contract, since there is no express one), now additionally assuming that there was an interference: «When plaintiffs do not have direct evidence of use, they may raise an inference of use by showing the defendants had access to their ideas and the defendants‟ work is substantially similar to the plaintiffs‟ ideas. (Hollywood Screentest of America, Inc. v. NBC Universal, Inc. (2007) 151 Cal.App.4th 631, 646; Teich v. General Mills, Inc. (1959) 170 Cal.App.2d 791, 797.» The courts also noted the available defense to this assumed interference: it can be rebutted by "uncontroverted evidence of independent creation" (Id.) Similarities alone would not suffice for finding of an interference, absent of some evidential support.

Mr. Spinner's argument was built around the fact that the same entity, ABC, received his script in 1977 and participated in production of the 2000s series. The continuity of the same entity would give Spinner a ground in a field of real property law, but not in the intellectual property. At least for the claims to ideas, there is no acknowledged corporate personhood, yet. The court declined to assume an "access"  [«Bare “„corporate receipt‟” of the plaintiffs‟ work may not be sufficient to show access»], and, consequently, found no interference, thus sinking the implied contract theory, too.

Not surprisingly, based on the above findings, the court affirmed that Mr. Spinner's claim to LOST was lost.

[5-3-2013 update] Looks like an opposite resolution is now possible in a similar claim made by Jaime Gordon against Dreamworks Animation Studios over "Kung Fu Panda" creation, where the studio's motion to dismiss was denied in part and a motion for summary judgment was denied entirely. Interestingly enough, an artist in this case also lost some original evidence of his earlier work (possibly even shred it), but that did not stop the court in finding a possibility for a trier of fact to find interference at trial. Gordon decision is dated March 28, a week before the Lost's appeal.

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