You Sue a Studio, They Make You Pay

Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

An aggressive new stance has one scribe paying Warners $900,000 after losing her ‘Monster-in-Law’ case.

Screenwriters Beware: A Los Angeles judge last month ordered writer Sheri Gilbert to reimburse Warner Bros. nearly $900,000 it spent defending a claim that the 2005 Jennifer Lopez comedy Monster-in-Law was stolen from a script Gilbert wrote about her own mother-in-law. The case, which took two years and more than 4,000 billable attorney hours to litigate, is now on appeal. That came on the heels of a New York judge ordering comic book writer Robert Cabell to pay Sony Pictures almost $600,000 for claiming that the copyright to his comic The Hair-Raising Adventures of James Blonde, about a Navy SEAL-turned-hairdresser, was stolen by the studio and writers Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow for the 2008 Adam Sandler comedy You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. (Later, that judge took sympathy on the man’s financial plight, lowering it to $1,000.) Writers have always cried foul when a rejected script or pitch ends up looking like a different project. But rather than resolving claims quietly, some studios go on the offensive, and if a judge deems the claim meritless, the defendant can be ordered to pay the studio’s costs and attorneys fees. Fox is battling a lawsuit filed in January against the producers of the series Lie to Me, and the Weinstein Co. is contesting a claim that Quentin Tarantino stole Kill Bill. “Rather than settle frivolous lawsuits, we commit resources to defeat them in order to deter future lawsuits against us,” says Leonard Venger, head of litigation at Sony. “But some cases do have merit,” counters Glen Kulik, an attorney currently pursuing DreamWorks Animation on a claim that Kung Fu Panda was stolen. Still, Kulik acknowledges that a vast majority of claims won’t get far. “My perception right now in these cases is that defendants definitely are doing well,” he says.