In November, Julie Taymor sued producers of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the most expensive Broadway production in history. The show’s former director alleged that the musical had continued to use her work without compensation, and one of the more noteworthy aspects of her lawsuit was that she was claiming authorship rights in her version of the Spider-Man story.
The suit led to a nasty countersuit, which prompted Taymor to reply with new details about what happened backstage. Meanwhile, one of the more interesting questions has been largely overshadowed: Has Taymor gained some property rights on the Spider-Man character and story, first introduced 50 years ago in the comic book Amazing Fantasy #15?
8 Legged Productions, the main producer on Turn Off the Dark, says that simply can’t be right. On Tuesday, the production company filed a motion to dismiss Taymor’s lawsuit. And Wednesday, Taymor filed her own motion to dismiss 8 Legged’s counterclaims, saying the producers don’t know how to read a contract properly.
We’ve previously taken a look at what each side is asserting. Now it’s time for a view of possible legal failings for each side.
In a motion to dismiss, 8 Legged says Taymor can’t establish copyright infringement on the part of the musical’s producers because the treatment and book were derived from pre-existing works — namely, the blockbuster Spider-Man films from the past decade and the 50 years of comic books featuring the character.
“Once the pre-existing elements are excluded — including the Spider-Man origin story, its famous characters such as Peter Parker, Spider-Man, Mary Jane Watson and Uncle Ben, and even the most detailed portions of the treatment describing Spider-Man’s fight with Arachne,” says 8 Legged, “the remaining elements simply do not appear in the book of the musical.”
Taymor believes she’s made an original creation and that producers stole more than 350 lines of dialogue and descriptions of stage activity. But the producers are responding that whatever she claims to have created — like a deep look into Spider-Man villain Arachne — was simply a derivative of stuff that came before.
The producers want Taymor’s complaint tossed because no reasonable juror could find substantial similarity between Taymor’s version of the musical and the current version, and where similarities exist, they are merely predicated on unprotected or pre-existing elements.
The producers also have filed a declaration by one of its lawyers, who has reviewed the various Spider-Man works. It’s a very colorful and picture-inclusive document that details the half-century development of the franchise. This must-read for Spider-Man aficionados is attached at the end of the post.
But first, let’s get to Taymor’s own attempts to dismiss the counterclaims.
She was countersued for having allegedly breached her contract and fiduciary duties by not cooperating with producers. The producers say she failed to write any actual text for the musical’s book, failed to make changes as requested, insisted that the show focus on Arachne and prevented others from making producer-requested changes.
In her own brief to a New York federal court, she points out flaws in producers’ legal reasoning. Even accepting the allegation that she was noncooperative, Taymor asks, where’s the contractual breach?
She says that the deal she had with producers allowed a limited use of her book and that she retained the right to control the content and uses of her work. The producers, she adds, “were not granted any right under the Author Deal Memo to dictate changes to Taymor or, in the event of a creative disagreement, to simply continue to use and change Taymor’s work without paying the royalties provided for in the agreement.”
Taymor also says that the settlement agreement struck by 8 Legged and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (Taymor’s union) preclude many of the counterclaims being brought against her.
Details on this argument are fuzzy because the language of the actual settlement agreement is confidential and has been redacted from Taymor’s legal brief. But by suing SDC with many of the same allegations made in the Taymor lawsuit, and then signing a form to release claims, the producers allegedly waived their rights to pursue these same claims in the Taymor lawsuit.
If there’s no settlement, a judge will next rule on these motions for summary judgment. There’s some logical inconsistency here, of course. On one hand, Taymor is alleged to have based her work on pre-existing material. On the other hand, she is alleged to have refused to follow the original, family-friendly Spider-Man story as the producers wanted.
Nevertheless, here’s the producers’ view of the history of Spider-Man.