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A lawsuit that began with a touch of mysticism has concluded with a dose of inevitability.
Last March, just days before the Fox TV series Touch premiered, writer Everette Hallford sued the network, former president Peter Chernin, executive producers Kiefer Sutherland and Tim Kring for copyright infringement.
Hallford alleged that the series stole his screenplay, Prodigy, and his novel Visionary, but the claims haven’t withstood the scrutiny of a New York federal judge, who tossed the lawsuit on Wednesday.
Hallford’s book (Visionary) has been described as a story about a reporter sent to cover the visit of the mystic-prophet figure, hurled into an adventure that spans 60 years of history. His screenplay (Prodigy) dealt with a journalist, who with the help of an autistic boy, solves a mystery about a man who prevented a train accident. The story explores the man’s grief for his lost wife, recurring nightmares and the struggles of the boy to communicate with the outside world.
According to the original complaint, Hallford says that in 2009, while caring for his newborn granddaughter at a New York children’s hospital, he became friendly with a bioethics specialist who knew Kring, the creator of NBC’s Heroes. Hallford says he passed along Prodigy, and that there was a “reasonable possibility” that it landed in Kring’s hands.
But that really isn’t particularly significant as U.S. District Judge William Pauley‘s chief job at the early stage of the lawsuit is to determine whether the works share “substantial similarity” in expression. If not, the case doesn’t make it to a jury.
As a starting point, the judge notes that despite Hallford’s claim that Touch is a “remolecularized version of Prodigy and Visionary,” that the plaintiff “cannot mix and match alleged similarities between Touch and other works that are not related to one another.”
The judge then says that Touch and Visionary “bear no similarities.”
And as for the alleged similarity between Touch and Prodigy, the judge says that it is “legion,” noting that both works are set in New York and the names of both of the main characters start with the letter “J.”
There might be other surface similarities for those who squint hard enough, but the judge’s description of the “fundamentally different” boy-characters in each work are a good illustration of why plaintiffs suing Hollywood studios for stealing their works almost always lose:
“Jonathan is autistic but is later cured of his symptoms. He speaks to characters by playing back a tape recording. Jonathan is ‘practical[ly] an orphan’ and longs for someone to talk to him. He enjoys being touched. Jake, by contrast, is never diagnosed with autism, even though he exhibits similar symptoms. He refuses to speak to anyone, even his father, and prefers to communicate by means of symbols and coded messages that lead his father to make connections with other people. Unlike Jonathan, whose father abandoned him, Jake has a loving father who will go to any length to keep him from being taken away. But despite this, Jake cannot bear to be touched by his father or anyone else.”
The granular breakdown of how each work expresses its main ideas form the basis of the judge’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit on summary judgment. Read the full ruling here.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @eriqgardner
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