December 20, 2012 4:45pm PT by Eriq Gardner
Playwright of 'Point Break' Parody Wins $250K Trial Verdict
It's official: Making fun of Keanu Reeves can be a rewarding endeavor.
About a decade ago, playwright Jamie Keeling had the bright idea of doing a parody stage version of the 1991 film Point Break directed by Kathryn Bigelow. The big creative flourish in this theatrical adaptation was having untrained, unrehearsed audience members recite Reeves' lines so as to comically mimic the actor's stiff delivery.
The production of Point Break Live! was a big hit, touring the nation, but then the producer, New Rock Theater Productions, stopped paying Keeling royalties, doing a stage version on its own, and taking the position that Keeling had no right to her script since it was based on the film.
A jury trial was held this month in a New York federal court, and Keeling has emerged victorious. She has been awarded $250,000 in damages for New Rock's infringement of her play.
At the outset, the dispute raised an interesting question: Can someone who creates a parody of copyrighted material sue someone else who also is doing a parody?
New York federal judge Thomas Griesa said, absolutely, ruling that parodies are indeed copyrightable so long as they are original and that later derivative works can be alleged to be too similar to earlier derivative works.
So New Rock then took the position that Keeling's play wasn't original, or rather, that it wasn't "fair use." This sort of argument has become more common of late. For example, this past summer, the copyright owners of the TV series, Three's Company, sent a cease-and-desist letter to a playwright who had allegedly borrowed too many elements from the show, making it an insufficient parody to command First Amendment protection.
So during the trial over the Point Break parody, Keeling had to take the stand and defend the honor of her work.
"The trial turned on Ms. Keeling's testimony of how she made the serious into jokes and how the amount she used from the film was justified," says Ethan Jacobs, an attorney at Vinson & Elkins, who represented her.
By way of example, Jacobs says Keeling showed that by having unrehearsed audience members pretending to make a movie, "She captured the effect of Keanu Reeves' performance in the film like he was reading off of cue cards."
The plaintiff was also able to rebut New Rock's defenses that a co-director of Point Break Live! was a joint author -- Keeling denied that in testimony -- and also that New Rock's own version wasn't similar to Keeling's work. An actor on the newer production testified that the two productions shared some of the same jokes.
After being awarded actual damages and profits in the live trial version of the stage version of a movie, Keeling is now going for the kill. On Thursday, she submitted a motion in New York court for an injunction to permanently enjoin New Rock from infringing her work. In other words, if New Rock wants to make fun of Keanu Reeves in Point Blank, it would have to figure out a new creative way to do so. Keeling's method has been copyrighted.
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