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Top 10 Hollywood Lawsuits of 2010

The biggest showbiz cases of the year, starring Don Johnson, Casey Affleck, Nicollette Sheridan and more.

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
Getty Images

It was another active year on the Hollywood legal docket. Here's our list of the top 10 cases, as judged by significance to the entertainment industry, the amount of attention the litigation received, and/or the novelty of the legal issues in play. We'll start with by far the biggest showbiz legal story of the year... 

1. The Walt Disney Co. vs. Celador

If Disney had known that in July a federal jury would award a staggering $319 million to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire producer Celador Intl.—the largest jury verdict ever in a so-called “Hollywood accounting” case—the studio would never have taken the six-year legal fight all the way to a trial. That’s the lesson Hollywood learned from the year’s most important case, which quickly became a cautionary tale for studios debating whether to fight profit participants over revenue from hit franchises. In December, Disney’s motion for a new trial was denied, ensuring that the Millionaire case will now be appealed to the Ninth Circuit—so we won't get a final answer in the case for perhaps years.

2. Hurt Locker Producer vs. Army of Pirates

In what might be the ballsiest antipiracy lawsuit of the year, Voltage Pictures in May sued 5,000 individuals who were alleged to have downloaded its Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker off of torrent websites. The suit represented the biggest legal action against end-users of pirated content since the record industry’s aborted legal campaign against tens of thousands of song thieves. Voltage hired an upstart law firm, the U.S. Copyright Group, on a contingency basis to go after a massive number of alleged file-sharers in just a single lawsuit. The defendants were anonymous, but ISPs were subpoenaed for customer identification, creating a nightmarish burden on those companies to look up flagged IP addresses. The U.S. Copyright Group has thus far successfully beat back subpoena squash motions. Recently, USCG dismissed many of the defendants from the lawsuit but say they are in the process of filing follow-up litigation against these individuals around the country.

3. Iraq War Vet vs. Hurt Locker

The best picture winner snags two spots on this list, thanks to Master Sgt. Jeffrey S. Sarver, who filed a lawsuit against the film’s creators and distributor alleging that the depiction of an Army bomb squad was a thinly veiled account of his own story. The suit, filed only days before the Academy Awards in March, pits the First Amendment speech protections of filmmakers against an individual’s right to protect his own likeness from commercial exploitation and possible defamation. Complicating this case is an agreement that screenwriter Mark Boal allegedly made with the U.S. military to have access to soldiers for research in his reporting for a Playboy article that inspired the Locker script. The suit was filed in New Jersey but moved to California in November. It’s still pending.

4. Viacom vs. YouTube

The four-year battle over copyright infringement on YouTube took a major turn in June when U.S. District Court Judge Louis Stanton dismissed the key claims in the $1 billion case against the Google subsidiary. On summary judgment, Stanton ruled that user-generated video websites implementing reasonable takedown procedures are shielded from copyright liability from user uploads. The case isn’t over, though. Viacom filed a scorching appeal in November, attracting support from dozens of Hollywood heavyweights. The conglom urges the appellate circuit to focus on YouTube’s early days, when it allegedly built its website on the back of content owners. Google’s retort is expected early next year.

5. Axl Rose vs. Activision

In November, the Guns N’ Roses frontman sued for $20 million, claiming that the game company's use of the song “Welcome to the Jungle” in "Guitar Hero" violated a deal not to include imagery of his former bandmate, Slash. The lawsuit not only showcases an amusing personal beef, but also represents the latest in a litigation trend: Video game publishers are now dealing with numerous claims alleging breaches of contract and publicity rights violations over avatars featured in popular games. No Doubt still has a lawsuit pending against Activision over use of the group’s music and image in "Band Hero," and a coalition of former college athletes is challenging Electronic Arts over likenesses used in sports games. Expect big news on this front in the coming year.

6. Don Henley vs. Republican Senate Candidate

In August, California senatorial candidate Chuck DeVore was forced to issue an embarassing apology to the rock legend for using his music in campaign commercials. The concession came after Henley sued and DeVore defended himself by claiming he had free speech rights to make use of Henley’s music as a critique on “liberal” Hollywood. But in June, a federal judge shot down that argument, saying the use of music was akin to satire rather than parody, and that DeVore had violated Henley’s copyright. Both the decision and settlement sent a clear message to politicians, who often use popular music in campaigns. Many other politicos, including John McCain, Charlie Crist, and Rand Paul, also had to respond to charges from copyright holders this year.

7. Don Johnson vs. Rysher Entertainment

Another famous Don makes this list. While most people in Hollywood were fixated on the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire trial in July, the Nash Bridges star won another high-stakes profit participation trial against the producer of the hit CBS show. Johnson, who was a huge TV star when he agreed to star in and produce Bridges, was given half of the show’s copyright. When he didn’t receive his share of profits, he sued, and a Los Angeles jury awarded him $23.2 million. 

8. Warner Bros. vs. Marc Toberoff

Studio lawyers often don’t think too highly of the Hollywood attorneys who regularly file lawsuits seeking millions of dollars from their companies. But many in the showbiz legal community were shocked in May when Warners took its displeasure with Toberoff to court, personally suing the lawyer—who represents the heirs of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in a years-long battle over copyrights associated with the character— claiming he improperly convinced his clients to repudiate their deals with the studio.  The suit, which is still pending, upped the stakes in the already-huge battle over Superman. If Warners loses its case against Toberoff, he will no doubt sue the studio for malicious prosecution.

9. I’m Still Here crew vs. Casey Affleck

The year’s strangest fake documentary produced two lawsuits alleging especially strange behavior. In July, before it was revealed that the Joaquin Phoenix movie was an elaborate hoax, a producer and cinematographer (both female) sued Affleck for sexual harassment alleging they were subjected to outrageous conduct on the set. Hookers, drugs and rampant male nudity were all alleged, but the film in question was supposed to include that stuff, raising the question of where to draw the line between real and make-believe harassment on movie sets. The cases were settled.  

10. Nicollette Sheridan vs. Desperate Housewives

The lawsuit read like an episode of the show: Sheridan, whose character was killed off Housewives in dramatic fashion, filed a $20 million complaint in April against ABC and show creator Marc Cherry claiming she was fired after he slapped her around on the set and discriminated against her based on, among other things, her sexual orientation (Cherry is gay; she’s straight).  The case still pending but Sheridan agreed in December to drop her claims of abuse in exchange for avoiding psychological and medical examinations. 

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