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Will a new “Dungeons and Dragons” film be made by Warner Bros. or will it be made by Universal Pictures? A legal game is afoot to settle the answer.
Courtney Solomon‘s Sweetpea Entertainment believes that it can set up a movie for Warner Bros. In 1994, Solomon’s company acquired D&D film rights in a deal with Hasbro and has since made one theatrical motion picture and two TV films. It was eyeing a fourth D&D film for Warner Bros., but before a deal was completed, Hasbro filed a lawsuit to stop it.
In its May lawsuit, Hasbro claimed that Sweetpea’s rights had reverted. Believing that it had regained rights, Hasbro licensed Universal Pictures to make a “Dungeons and Dragons” reboot, and upon word of another D&D film in development, the toy company alleged that Sweetpea had committed copyright infringement.
Two can play at that game.
Sweetpea has now hit back with counterclaims, alleging that Hasbro lacks the rights to allow Universal Pictures to go forward. “Hasbro wrote a check it cannot cash by promising Universal Pictures film rights to “Dungeons & Dragons” that it does not have,” say the counterclaims filed last week.
The dispute is as much about how to read an ambiguous contract as it is about anything else. Under the terms of the ’94 agreement and a later amendment, “sequel rights” revert back to Hasbro after five years of the initial release. Solomon’s company produced a 2000 theatrical film version of Dungeons and Dragons, so if the parties count from that year, it’s been well over five years. But Solomon’s company also produced two TV films, including Wrath of the Dragon God for the SyFi Channel in 2005 and The Book of Vile Darkness last year. So perhaps those works toll the clock.
In reaction to Hasbro’s lawsuit, Sweetpea attempted to have it dismissed, but last month a federal judge said it was too premature to do so. Hasbro is arguing that that the contract has separate reversion clauses for film and television, and that as a result, a TV movie doesn’t count as a sequel. The judge isn’t ready just yet to reject the possibility of reading the contract as so.
The latest roll of the dice is Sweetpea’s counterclaims.
“Under its license agreement, Sweetpea is the owner in perpetuity of the Dungeons & Dragons copyrights with respect to live-action motion pictures,” say the papers. “Sweetpea’s large bundle of rights under the license agreement includes not only the right to use Dungeons & Dragons copyrighted material and trademarks in connection with live-action movies, it also includes the right to exclude others, including Hasbro, from infringing on those rights.”
Sweetpea says not only does it it have the sole right to make a new D&D film, it adds, “only Sweetpea can sue others for using that copyrighted material in a live-action motion picture.”
Solomon’s company seems intent on making a new D&D film. The counterclaim reports that in 2012, Warners approached Hasbro with a spec script, based in part on Dungeons & Dragons, titled Chainmail, which is also the name of a board game from Dungeons & Dragons designer Gary Gygax. Sweatpea says that Hasbro’s first lawsuit was filed so as “to delay a deal” between it and Warners.
The new wrinkle appears to be Sweetpea’s claim of holding onto certain rights even after possible reversion. The company isn’t through contending that its TV movies, or non-theatrical films, extended the clock for making another film, but even if that argument doesn’t fly, it’s now charging that that it has rights that “never” revert back to Hasbro, including the right to make a live-action film using D&D copyright and trademark, the right to use “Dungeons & Dragons” as a primary or secondary film title, and a Right of Last Refusal, which would allegedly allow Sweetpea to make a film on the same financial terms that Hasbro gave Universal.
Sweetpea essentially says that Hasbro’s reversion theory is irrelevant, that the toymaker can’t license Universal’s film no matter what and is suing for breach of contract, copyright infringement, trademark violations and declaratory relief. The counterclaimant is asking for an injunction and damages.
Here are the full counterclaims, which describe playing a Dungeons & Dragons game as being “similar to creating a series of stories where anything is possible and where the possibilities of narrative are endless. The rules of the game merely provide parameters…”
The same might be said for entertainment industry contracts.
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