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In another sign that Hollywood studios are willing to go to the mat against writers who dare claim to have their ideas stolen, 20th Century Fox has won $40,000 in attorney’s fees from a writer who sued the studio in 2009 over Alien vs. Predator.
James Muller, who is now claiming insolvency, had alleged his script, titled The Lost Continent, bore striking resemblance to 2004’s Alien vs. Predator. Both screenplays told the story of a battle between extraterrestrial creatures, but the surface similarity wasn’t very convincing for U.S. District Judge Denny Chin.
In an order granting Fox’s motion for attorney fees, Judge Chin gives three reasons why Muller’s claims were “frivolous and objectively unreasonable.”
First, the stories were really different. The Lost Continent was about “a government-led expedition to the Antarctic to investigate a mysterious structure below the frozen surface. Second, the alleged similarities were ill-conceived. Muller tried to demonstrate “2000+ similarities” but many of the pairings were found to be not very similar. Third and finally, to the extent there was similarities, Judge Chin found they were unprotectable. Many were stock themes instead of things one can actually copyright — expression.
Fox then went after Muller to send a message to potential plaintiffs. The $40,000 award of attorney’s fees continues a recent trend where studios fight back hard.
The judge’s order on Monday also reveals the amount of billable hours a studio can spend in fighting a copyright infringement claim. According to papers submitted by Fox in the case, its fees were based on 1,230.3 hours worked by its team at Hogan & Hartson and Leopold Petrich & Smith at rates ranging from $165 to $395 per hour.
That works out to more than $300,000 to fight a nuisance case, but Fox only requested $150,000 with the “belief that the lesser award (would) adequately serve the statutory goals of compensation and deterrence,” which the judge seems to have been open to accepting but for a look at Muller’s tax returns.
Seeing that the plaintiff really was financially hard-up, the judge settles on $40,000 as an amount that will do the trick of sending a message without ruining the guy financially.
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