A 19th Century Threesome Becomes A Modern Day Copyright Triangle For Emma Thompson (Exclusive)

Academy Award-winning actress/screenwriter Emma Thompson is in the midst of preparing her latest film project, Effie, about a love triangle involving art critic John Ruskin, his teenage wife Effie Gray, and pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. The real-life sexual scandal was the talk of the town in 19th Century England.

But before Thompson begins shooting her film set to star Greg Wise and Dakota Fanning, she’s locked in a copyright triangle that might not yet be the talk of the town in 21st century America, but could demonstrate the difficulty in making a film adaptation about a well-trodden historical subject without stepping on another artist’s toes.

In February, Effie Film LLC,  the production company behind the coming new film, sued playwright Gregory Murphy. The company hoped to get a declaration that Thompson’s script didn’t infringe Murphy’s play entitled The Countess, which also covered the Effie affair.

Last Friday, Effie Film brought a second lawsuit – this time against another writer, Eve Pomerance, who in 1995, copyrighted a screenplay entitled The Secret Trials of Effie Gray.

Both Murphy and Pomerance are alleged to have threatened Thompson if she went ahead with plans to make her Effie. In the latest lawsuit, it's alleged that Pomerance’s lawyers asserted that Thompson’s screenplay is substantially similar to the 1995 registered screenplay.

Thompson, who is represented by Andrew Deutch at DLA Piper, wishes to rest all controversy lest she complete the film and then be hit with legal action from other writers. Her concern is understandable in light of the fact that Hollywood studios get hit all the time with claims from writers alleging copyright theft.

Can potential copyright claims be cleared pre-production?

After Murphy was hit with a lawsuit, he filed a motion to dismiss Effie Film's lawsuit.

Murphy challenged the production company’s right to seek declaratory relief to a work which did not yet exist. It was originally stated that Thompson’s Effie could only close its financing by putting all copyright issues to rest, but Murphy’s lawyers pointed out that, if true, there was no real film by which to judge similar expression. A judge’s ruling couldn’t resolve anything, it was argued, because “the hypothetical film is a moving target, subject to change before its eventual hypothetical completion.”

The Effie production company responded by saying that most of the financing was in place and that the screenplay was a fixed, final “shooting script.” Effie Film still sought assurances that Thompson wouldn’t complete the film only to be hit with an injunction that would threaten investor money.

Murphy continued to press a New York federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit as premature, and oddly, the dispute has been in a stand-still stage with no further motions or judgments for the last nine months.

Maybe the judge is waiting for Thompson to finish shooting Effie so as to render this issue moot, but now comes a new lawsuit against another writer who has also treated the tale of Effie Gray. And once again, a declaration is being sought that Thompson’s work doesn’t infringe the copyright to a prior work.

This time, to make the matter even more meta, the plaintiff says that the Murphy lawsuit was widely publicized, but that Pomerance waited many months before asserting her own claims “in order to inflict maximum disruption and economic pressure…at a time when the film was beginning production.”

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner

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