Fox, WME, Peter Chernin Sued for Allegedly Stealing TV Pilot Script for 'New Girl'

New Girl Deschanel Johnson May 7 Episodic - H 2013
Patrick McElhenney/FOX

New Girl Deschanel Johnson May 7 Episodic - H 2013

Two screenwriters are standing up to make the claim that Fox's New Girl was ripped off from their television pilot script.

In a lawsuit filed in California federal court on Thursday, Stephanie Counts and Shari Gold say that the hit comedy is based upon their script work for a proposed television series titled Square One. Besides money and credit, they demand an injunction that halts further filming and distribution of the popular comedy.

Read the Full Complaint Here

According to the lawsuit, "Any differences between the Square One scripts and New Girl are so small and insignificant that they cannot be afforded copyright protection, and are, in fact, nothing more than transparent attempts to hide Defendants’ blatant plagiarism. These differences are more akin to eraser marks or ink blots on Stephanie and Shari’s creation and cannot be treated as original expression."

Demonstrating substantially similarity is crucial for plaintiffs, but perhaps just as important, especially for unknown writers, is the necessity of telling a credible story about how the defendants gained access to the allegedly stolen work. In a 92-page complaint, the plaintiffs attempt one, probably in anticipation of a defense that New Girl came about through "independent creation." The plaintiffs' tale includes allegations how Counts and Gold shopped their script through William Morris Endeavor, how they once proposed Zooey Deschanel for the lead and how Fox made a $10,000 settlement offer

The lawsuit says the two, who met each other as journalism students at the University of Georgia, wrote their work in 2006 based upon "Stephanie’s real-life experience when she discovered her husband was having an affair, leading her to move into a three-man bachelor pad."

Counts had moved in with her brother, a Hollywood stuntman, and two of his friends in Culver City. During this time, she took notes, and the roommates are described as the inspiration for Square One.

After a first draft of the TV pilot was completed, they say they shared it with Holly Harter, an independent producer. Harter allegedly told them it would work better as a film, so they rewrote it. Then, they shopped it around.

In 2008, according to the complaint, Harter emailed Counts that she had sent a solicited copy to WME partner Adam Venit. A few months later, Harter told the plaintiffs that Venit had introduced her to agent David Karp. The script was shopped by the talent agency to directors, says the lawsuit, and "Endeavor does 'coverage' on Square One in 2008, essentially giving the script a favorable grade that allowed it to be accessed by all its agents."

The following year, the plaintiffs say they suggested to Harter that Deschanel be a potential lead, but Harter didn't know who the the actress was. A few months later, they say they decided to stop working with Harter after having trouble understanding why Square One was "on the backburner when the script [had] been receiving considerable interest from agents at a top talent agency, defendant WME."

Counts says she spoke on the phone with Karp, but that in-person meetings fell through due to scheduling conflicts. Afterward, WME's attitudes allegedly changed toward them. The plaintiffs had trouble getting their calls returned.

"On February 17, 2011, Stephanie and Shari become dismayed when, for the first time, they hear that their work Square One appears to have been poached," says the lawsuit. "A friend who had read Square One, emails Stephanie and Shari that the logline and summary of a show under development, titled Chicks and Dicks, sounds remarkably similar to Square One."

It's alleged that "Chicks and Dicks" became New Girl. Authorship on the series has been credited to Elizabeth Meriwether, a WME client.

The lawsuit alleges how this happened.

WME agent Cori Wellins along with Rick Rosen, another WME partner, allegedly passed along Square One to Meriwether and industry luminary Peter Chernin's companies. According to the complaint, "Meriwether and Meriwether Pictures rewrite the Square One script for a television production the Chernin Defendants, and defendant WME, wish to exploit."

By 2012, Meriwether wrote her script and it is directed as a pilot episode by Jake Kasdan. It was picked up by 20th Century Fox Television. All are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The complaint offers several pages of claimed similarities. Among them: "both protagonists are awkward, quirky women around the age of 30;" "the plot of both works revolves around the protagonist moving in with three guys;" "the three new guy roommates in each work have identical personality traits;" "the best friend in each work is named 'CeC'” or has the initials 'C.C.;'" and "the protagonists are both sexually inexperienced."

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In 2011, the plaintiffs retained a lawyer, and the defendants were informed they were infringing on Square One. That lawyer, though, also represented Kasdan (whose father is Lawrence Kasdan), but allegedly told Counts and Gold it wouldn't be a problem so long as the director wasn't sued.

"In January 2012, the Fox Defendants’ attorneys make a settlement offer to Stephanie and Shari of approximately $10,000 in an attempt to silence and prevent them from seeking formal legal action against the Fox Defendants, the Chernin defendants, defendant WME, defendant Meriwether, and defendant Meriwether Pictures," says the lawsuit.

The attorney for Counts and Gold allegedly recommended they take the money, but they refused what they saw as a "paltry" offer. The attorney was terminated, according to the complaint.

Andrew Ryan at Ryan Law is representing the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that alleges direct, contributory and vicarious copyright infringement. They are seeking compensatory, statutory, punitive and exemplary damages. Adding that monetary damages are "inadequate to compensate them for the damage done," they also want to be credited as the true creators and the defendants to "issue a public apology."

Fox wasn't immediately available for comment. WME declined comment. We'll update if there are any further responses.

Twitter: @eriqgardner