'Dungeons & Dragons' Film Lawsuit Will Proceed

Dungeons and Dragons Poster - P 2013

Dungeons and Dragons Poster - P 2013

There won't be any quick resolution to a legal drama over who has rights to make a new Dungeons & Dragons film.

The two players in this battle are toymaker Hasbro and Courtney Solomon's Sweetpea Entertainment. Hasbro is reportedly working with Universal Studios on a reboot while Sweetpea is said to be partnering with Warner Bros.

In May, Hasbro filed a lawsuit against Sweetpea over rights to the property. Solomon's company struck back with a summary judgment motion, but on Friday, a California federal judge declared the latter roll of the dice to be "premature," setting the stage for months -- maybe even years -- of litigation.

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What makes the dispute complicated is confusion over what constitutes a "sequel" and the nature of the parties' contract.

In 1994, Sweetpea acquired rights to make a film based on Dungeons & Dragons, and in 2000 Solomon produced a theatrical film. According to the contract, Sweetpea had the rights to make one or more sequels, but those rights would revert five years after the initial U.S. release.

Sweetpea didn't make another theatrical film, but the company did produce two TV films, including Wrath of the Dragon God for the SyFi Channel in 2005 and The Book of Vile Darkness last year.

Hasbro argues 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 for purposes of extending Sweetpea's clock to make another film. The defendant said this interpretation was "facially absurd."

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In a ruling on Friday, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee gives points to both side. She says that it is "not necessarily absurd" to have a contract set up this way. On the other hand, the judge adds that it is "plausible" a television sequel could toll the reversion clauses for both sequels and television programs.

"The contract is simply not clear on its face whether the two television movies should count solely as 'television programs' or should be considered 'sequels' or both," writes the judge. "Because the Court finds that the relevant contract language is ambiguous, Plaintiffs are entitled to discovery on the contract formation and to present such extrinsic evidence as may be relevant to the parties’ intent."

Sweetpea also looked to score a quick win in this lawsuit by arguing that Hasbro hadn't provided written notice of its intent to terminate the license, nor an opportunity to cure, as contractually obligated.

But Hasbro countered that such notice wasn't needed because motion picture rights automatically reverted. "At the very least, this interpretation is plausible," writes the judge.

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Judge Gee also rejects Sweetpea's argument that Hasbro can't demonstrate copyright or trademark infringement without the ability of comparing specific elements of a produced work to Hasbro's property. Even though the companies' works are in the formative stages, the judge says Hasbro is "entitled to try to meet their burden of proof with the aid of discovery."

As a result, Hasbro now gets to learn more about Sweetpea's film.

E-mail: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner