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An audacious lawsuit against Lionsgate Entertainment and its subsidiary Summit Entertainment has been whittled away, but perhaps surprisingly, there’s one claim of misbehavior surviving against the makers of Twilight that could be tested at a jury trial later this month.
Behind the Lines Productions first sued for a whopping $500 million in June 2013, alleging that in getting in the way of a parody film called Twiharder, which lampooned the vampire romance saga starring Kristen Stewart, the defendants violated antitrust law and committed copyright misuse. Among other things, the plaintiff was seeking to cancel all Twilight trademarks.
Well, that didn’t happen. But after the case moved from New York to California, and Lionsgate asserted counterclaims that Twiharder violated Twilight intellectual property, U.S. District Judge Manuel Real late last month dismissed all of the plaintiff’s lawsuit save for a rare claim of a prima facie tort.
What that means is that Summit could be going before a jury on allegations it intentionally and maliciously inflicted harm by sending a cease-and-desist letter that allegedly resulted in Behind the Lines losing insurance and distributors.
James Freeman, attorney for the plaintiff, prefers to think of the claim as one testing a copyright holder’s censorship and, in court documents (read here), indicates that he will be bringing forward the theory that Summit acted with “disinterested malevolence” since first, Summit had no economic incentive to get in the way of Twiharder, and second, Summit was motivated by bad faith, hypocrisy and personal animus.
The logic is complicated, nuanced and in the defendant’s mind, probably a little loony, so let’s unpack this.
On the first point, the plaintiff alleges that when Summit issued demand letters in 2012 over Twiharder, it didn’t really believe that the parody would cause an economic injury. If so, the plaintiff wonders, why did Summit not send a cease-and-desist letter to 20th Century Fox over the 2010 parody Vampires Suck? Aren’t copyright holders who make threats suppose to actually care about market harm?
As to the second point, the plaintiff posits Summit’s alleged true motivation — that it didn’t much like how a “vulgar” parody would tarnish the “wholesomeness” of its own film franchise. And why does it care? Freeman draws attention to Twilight author Stephenie Meyer‘s Mormon religion, how scholars and media critics “acknowledge” that the famous film series is an allegory for Mormon theology and values, and how she hates the term “Twi-hard,” hence alleging that the studio attacked the parody as some sort of favor to her.
Summit believes this is ludicrous. No, really. In summary judgment motion papers (read here), the defendant says that Between the Lines’ “argument in support of its prima facie tort claim boils down to ‘because I said so.’ “
On Monday, Summit goes before the judge in an effort to head off a trial that’s currently scheduled for Nov. 25. To escape any liability in the matter, Summit says there’s no allegation that its sole motive was to injure Between the Lines, no evidence that it intentionally inflicted harm, and no admissible evidence to support a request for special damages. (The plaintiff appears to be seeking $6 million for lost profits.)
If that doesn’t work, Summit has brought all sorts of motions to preclude evidence including any testimony about Meyer’s feelings about the term “Twi-hard” and her religious beliefs. The defendant says they aren’t relevant and could lead to a “danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of issues, or misleading the jury.”
Then, there’s the counterclaims, which are an entirely separate (and interesting) issue altogether because defining “fair use” (such as with a parody) is a tough chore and one that’s currently being considered by Congress for adjustment.
Between the Lines doesn’t think its film is an infringement because it “comments on matters of public concern raised by The Twilight Saga, including domestic violence, racial supremacy, self-loathing, sexual abstinence and female subordination.”
A summary judgment motion is going before the judge on that issue as well — here’s Behind the Lines’ entertaining court papers on the subject, with all sorts of references to fascinating legal battles in Hollywood’s past — and if a judge refuses to dismiss the counterclaims, it’ll be a jury looking at the films in question and trying to figure them out. Twilight might seem like fluff — super-successful fluff, of course — but it’s about to get a critical reappraisal in a courtroom.
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