The Report: Fox Takes On Script Pirates
It’s a phenomenon as old as the Internet: Aspiring screenwriters and film buffs swap scripts online, hoping to learn tricks of the trade or peek at movies before they hit theaters. The practice isn’t quite legal — scripts are just as protected by copyright law as finished films — but hundreds of sites such as the Script Shack and Drew’s Script-O-Rama have operated for years under a mostly accepted code: Avoid posting high-profile in-development scripts, and act promptly if studio lawyers send take-down letters.
That arrangement exploded into litigation Nov. 19 when 20th Century Fox filed a $15 million lawsuit against New York-based screenwriter P.J. McIlvaine (2006’s A Merry Little Christmas) for allegedly uploading to an online database a script for the upcoming Ryan Reynolds tentpole Deadpool and about 100 others including the original Die Hard, Aliens, Edward Scissorhands, Love and Other Drugs and the Glee TV pilot.
The move by Fox, considered by many to be the most aggressive major studio when it comes to enforcing legal rights, is notable not only because the studio sued McIlvaine in federal court rather than working out the matter privately, as most script leaks are resolved. More significantly, in addition to damages for the Deadpool leak, the suit seeks to punish the posting of archived scripts, many of which are decades old.
The fracas has earned the attention of script website operators, who wonder whether studios no longer will look the other way as library screenplays bounce freely around the Internet. Or is the breadth of the McIlvaine suit simply a public message that posting in-development scripts will get you sued to the maximum extent of the law?
“The studio’s immediate concern is about scripts that haven’t been produced yet,” says Fox lawyer Jonathan Zavin of Loeb & Loeb. “But that doesn’t mean that the other conduct is legal — it’s clearly not.”
If studios were to begin targeting script websites generally, that would be an about-face after years of complacency.
“Posting produced screenplays, up to this moment in time, has been an accepted practice,” Sheridan Cleland, proprietor of the trading and review website MyPDFScripts, wrote in response to the Fox suit, adding, “Perhaps every script website online will soon cease to exist.”
Studio sources say that scenario is unlikely and that even Fox does not see a benefit to shutting down the script trade. But drastic measures would be fine with producer Don Murphy. When he heard about the Fox suit, Murphy went online and found a screenplay for his indie horror film Splice on MyPDFScripts. So he fired off a cease-and-desist letter and sent an angry e-mail to Cleland.
“They seem to think that it’s perfectly legal as long as it’s not new stuff,” says Murphy, also a producer on the Transformers films and the upcoming Real Steel. “They don’t understand the meaning of ‘copyright.’ It means it’s mine — I control what happens to it.”
Fox also has been taking a determined stance on script reviews that pop up online after a leak. Many reviews of the Deadpool script, by Zombieland scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, do not contain copyrighted material from the screenplay. But Fox’s takedown notices demand they be removed because they provide “important qualitative details about character, plot, setting and mood, thereby violating Fox’s rights in and to the copyrights to the screenplay,” according to a cease-and-desist letter reviewed by THR. Many sites, including MyPDFScripts and Cinema Blend, have complied with the request, but others have refused.
“It’s a disservice to the screenwriters because the product could be changed,” Zavin says. “Ultimately, it’s a disservice to the fans.”
Writer Michael Gilvary agrees. He sold a spec titled Nonstop to DreamWorks last year and days later saw his screenplay posted and reviewed on a site called ScriptShadow.
“I want the studio to be able to incubate that project without worrying about outside influences, like what some anonymous guy on the Internet is saying about my draft,” Gilvary says. The site’s writer, Christopher Eads — who posts as Carson Reeves — took the script down when asked. But by then, Gilvary notes, “the toothpaste is out of the tube.”
Regardless of whether the McIlvaine suit indicates a sea change in how Hollywood treats screenplays online, the case will be watched closely. Fox also has sued 10 anonymous defendants and plans to ascertain their names and IP addresses via subpoena. More suits could be in the works.