'12 Years a Slave' Draws Copyright Lawsuit Over Hans Zimmer Soundtrack

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While allegations of intellectual property theft fly in Hollywood, not often do we see a lawsuit that also claims violations of moral rights under the copyright laws of Germany and France.

This lawsuit is filed on behalf of composer Richard Friedman by attorney Maxwell Blecher, perhaps best known for representing Donald Sterling in the legal war over the Los Angeles Clippers last year. Friedman is targeting Hans Zimmer, 20th Century Fox, Sony Music and various companies connected to the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave for alleging incorporating a copyrighted music composition into the film's main musical theme.

According to the complaint (read below) filed in California federal court, the "Solomon Northup" theme can be traced to a 2004 composition titled "To Our Fallen," which allegedly was widely distributed as part of a music sample entitled "American Heart." The plaintiff says that sound recording was embodied in a 2008 episode of the ABC series Desperate Housewives and that the string overdub portions of the music were recorded at the same recording facility used by Zimmer to create most of the musical score for 12 Years a Slave.

This adds up to "compelling evidence of access" by Zimmer, says the complaint. That's important because under copyright law, a high degree of access necessitates lesser substantial similarity. The complaint doesn't go into any detail on how the compositions are similar. (TMZ, which first reported the lawsuit, posts some samples of the music in dispute.)

Friedman demands monetary damages and an injunction, although it would be a big surprise if a judge ordered the film pulled from distribution because of its music.

The lawsuit's quirkiest bit is the assertion of violations of moral rights. The key difference in European and American copyright code is that in countries like France, authors enjoy rights of attribution. However, Friedman, Zimmer and all of the other parties are identified as citizens of California or as domiciled there. The composers also appear to have worked in a Santa Monica studio. The only thing tying 12 Years a Slave to France and Germany is that the film, of course, had international distribution.

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner