Hollywood's Top 10 Legal Disputes of 2013
Harvey Weinstein, Michael Jackson and Tom Cruise made the list. But none of the three was No. 1.
It's hard to top the final season of AMC's Breaking Bad for edge-of-your-seat thrills, but overall, there's a good argument to be made that the best dramas emanating from the entertainment industry happen behind the cameras. Or as the famous Irving Berlin song put it, "There's no business like show business."
The past year was no exception. In fact, the year was so jam-packed with legal tussling that many show-stopping developments failed to make the cut of our top legal disputes from 2013. Among them: Warner Bros. gets a long, hard-fought victory that preserves its rights over Superman; A&E fights the contention by ex-Storage Wars star David Hester that manipulated reality television is subject to laws used to clean up TV quiz shows in the 1950s; Courtney Love is primed to become the first celebrity to stand trial over an allegedly defamatory tweet; and the Rhythm & Hues bankruptcy compels examination of what's wrong with the economics of visual effects.
Some of those courtroom dramas are ongoing and stand a chance of making next year's list. But in our view, here, in reverse order, are the ones that were the most gripping from 2013:
10. Huong Hoang's efforts to punish IMDb for revealing her age
This year, Americans were shocked by revelations that the NSA has been carrying out a campaign of mass electronic surveillance. Meanwhile, in Hollywood's backyard of Seattle, a smaller privacy scandal was raging. Huong Hoang, an actress, said that her career in the entertainment industry had been damaged when IMDb published her age. She claimed that the Amazon subsidiary had discovered her age through credit information when she signed up for an IMDbPro account. A trial was held in April, and IMDb came out as the winner, getting a jury to see it hadn't breached a user agreement with the actress. With support from the Screen Actors Guild, the actress is appealing the judge's earlier rulings paring her lawsuit.
9. Tom Cruise's defamation lawsuit vs. Bauer Media
Tom Cruise wanted to send a message when tabloid magazines owned by Bauer Media published headlines that he had "abandoned" his daughter, Suri, after divorcing Katie Holmes. Cruise demanded $50 million in damages, but his larger goal was to establish that there were consequences when the media is reckless with the truth. Unfortunately for Cruise, it's difficult not to draw an alternative lesson (as many are now doing): Celebrities should be wary before launching open court battles. During the discovery phase, both sides pursued sensitive information from the other. It ended up being comments that Cruise made during a deposition that generated many unflattering headlines for the actor. With a trial on the horizon, Cruise elected to give up hope of winning a powerful jury verdict, accepting instead a settlement where the media company offers its "regret" for how readers interpreted its original headline.
8. Frank Darabont's big lawsuit against AMC
The ousted Walking Dead creator Frank Darabont is seeking tens of millions of dollars in lost profits after AMC, as series producer, licensed the hit series to itself. This one is just getting started, but deals with a topic -- "vertical integration" -- that continues to be a beastly one for an entertainment industry in the throes of consolidation. For another example from this past year, see a lawsuit brought by the Home Improvement creators against Disney for the way the '90s sitcom was sold into syndication. Back to the Walking Dead lawsuit: According to the complaint, Darabont had a deal that entitled him to terms similar to what other third parties got from AMC. This allegation alone could open some investigation into the financials of other shows including Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
7. Robin Thicke looks to protect "Blurred Lines" from theft claims
For as long as there has been pop music, there's been fighting over who stole or borrowed or sampled what from whom. When Robin Thicke and his producers filed a lawsuit this past summer against Marvin Gaye's children, a few things raised the bar: The lawsuit was a preemptive strike against allegations that the year's most successful song was a derivative of Gaye's "Got to Give It Up." The litigation now involves both sides enlisting some of the industry's most esteemed lawyers to wrangle over the issue of when similarity in songcraft rises to copyright infringement. Now there's even a counterclaim that raises the issue of a conflict and lack of diligence by one of the industry's biggest song publishers.
6. Harvey Weinstein's big legal year
Frankly, it's too hard to pick just one Harvey Weinstein battle. So let's recap his wild year: In January, he settled a dispute with writer-producer Kevin Williamson over the Scream franchise. In February, he settled a particularly nasty $50 million lawsuit alleging he "sabotaged" the animated film Escape From Planet Earth. In July, after an arbitrator ruled that Warner Bros. had preexisting rights to The Butler as a film title, he threatened the MPAA with an antitrust lawsuit. In October, he scored a win at an appeals court in a fight with Grammy-winning musician Sam Moore over the 2008 film Soul Men. In December, he sued Warner Bros. with the contention that he is owed at least $75 million from The Hobbit movies. That not enough? There's also the ongoing $20 million case over The English Patient and another lawsuit over The Reader as well.
5. "Fair Use" explodes as a public issue
Technology has made duplication easier than ever. A counterpoint to copyright is fair use, or lawful exceptions to a rights-holder's ability to control derivatives. This past year brought two huge decisions on this front. First, after a nearly decade-long fight, Google got a federal judge to declare that its scanning of some 20 million library books was a fair use. Second, an appeals court concluded that artist Richard Prince had made fair use of most of photographer Patrick Cariou's work. Both cases are ongoing (on appeal or back at the trial court). Meanwhile, the issue of what's transformative and what's not has entered the public stream of conscious in other ways -- from Sony Pictures' win over a William Faulkner quote referenced in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris to the recent controversy over a toy company's use of The Beastie Boys' "Girls."
4. NCAA athletes fight over TV and video game money
At first blush, the issue of whether college football and basketball athletes deserve to be paid might not seem like a Hollywood one. But increasingly, the TV industry relies on DVR-proof live sports to entice consumers to sign up for cable and satellite service. A federal judge's decisions to deny a motion to dismiss and then certify a class action has the potential to shake things up. If a First Amendment right to use athletes' images doesn't exist, TV networks might be forced in the future to not only to spend billions of dollars acquiring rights from the NCAA, but also negotiate with trade associations representing amateur athletes. But that's not all: A victory for these athletes could threaten films and books about celebrities. At least, that's what big media companies including A&E Television, Discovery, News. Corp. and others are telling the Supreme Court in an amicus brief that urges the Supreme Court to examine the issue.
3. Hollywood interns fight for wages
Another mini-earthquake on the labor front: A federal judge's summary judgment ruling that two interns on Fox's Black Swan were employees as defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act and that the company's unpaid internship program potentially violated minimum wage and overtime laws. The plaintiffs in this case are among many now challenging the circumstances of internships in media and entertainment. The controversial ruling is now being reviewed by an appeals court. The attorney for the plaintiffs says the case is about "social justice" and will open doors to those who are less privileged. Others worry that training programs at large are threatened. Attorneys at corporations around the nation are watching closely.
2. Michael Jackson's family fights AEG Live over singer's death
The showy trial took up the entire summer. In a California courtroom, intimate details of the last days of the King of Pop were examined. Whose fault was it that Michael Jackson died of a drug overdose in 2009? The doctor who gave him propofol before his death? Or the concert promoter who pushed the singer to the brink? Ultimately, the jury decided that AEG Live wasn't liable. The ruling came as a relief to many in the entertainment industry weighing what kind of supervision is necessary when pushing performers to live up to contractual obligations. Had the outcome been different, this likely would have topped our list. But since the long-term ramifications are somewhat limited, we're going with …
1. TV broadcasters push Aereo all the way up to the Supreme Court
As a technological platform, Aereo still has a long ways to go to prove itself in the consumer market. But the mass litigation over Aereo's legality figures to impact -- possibly, transform -- the industry. The suing TV broadcasters contend that by capturing TV signals and relaying them to consumers' digital devices, Aereo is violating their public performance rights. Aereo believes that its service is fair because public TV airwaves are captured and relayed individually and privately. Aereo got an important victory at the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in April, and now everyone is pushing the Supreme Court to review Aereo's legality. Depending on if and what the Supreme Court agrees to hear, the dispute could touch other technologies like cloud computing out there. Meanwhile, the TV industry is wrestling with the issue of digital streaming, and tensions between programmers and distributors are playing out in retransmission disputes (see, for example, Time Warner Cable vs. CBS or Dish Network vs. ESPN). The greatest fear of broadcasters might not ultimately be that a judicially blessed Aereo becomes the go-to app. Instead, TV broadcasters could be more fearful that distributors like Dish, Cablevision and TWC adopt Aereo's technology and stop paying billions of dollars in carriage fees. In anticipation, some of the major networks have teased the possibility of going the pay TV route and leaving behind more than a half-century of broadcasting on public airwaves.