Hollywood Docket: 'Hobbit' Trial; 'Straight Outta Compton' Lawsuit; Variety Settlement

New developments in entertainment law include an MLB star's amended complaint in light of the planned shutdown of Al Jazeera America.

Peter Jackson has completed his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, but there's something more to come.

On Wednesday, attorneys for Warner Bros. and the J.R.R. Tolkien estate drew up a new calendar in their rights dispute. If things go according to plan, the two sides will square off at a trial in January 2017.

The Tolkien estate claims that a decades-old rights agreement entitled the studio to create only "tangible" merchandise based on the books, not make digital exploitations including games and online slot machines. Warner Bros. believes otherwise and alleges that the Tolkien estate's repudiation cost it to miss out on millions of dollars of licensing opportunities. 

Now that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has given a green light to Warner Bros.' counterclaims, the parties will be back at a district court with summary judgment motions. Those will be informed by massive discovery efforts including depositions by Tolkien's heirs and those who originally worked on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit rights deals.

U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte Jr. will likely be the one to interpret the contracts, and if a trial does happen, it would focus on what damages are owed.

In other entertainment law news:

— Former N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller has withdrawn one of his claims over Universal's Straight Outta Compton. In October, Heller filed a wide-ranging lawsuit that, among other charges, claimed that before the film came out, he collaborated with others on a book and prepared at least four screenplays, with two being titled "Straight Outta Compton." He claims that defendants (including Dr. Dre and Ice Cube) took possession of those works, prevented him from having access to the book/screenplays and adopted these works as their own to make the movie. A new amended complaint, though, no longer contains this conversion claim. 

— Speaking of amended complaints, Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard has one against Al Jazeera. In light of a decision to shut down Al Jazeera America, the MLB star has added Al Jazeera Media Network and Al Jazeera International as co-defendants in a defamation lawsuit. Howard is suing over his name being mentioned in a Dec. 27 report on AJA titled The Dark Side: Secrets of the Sports Dopers. The decision by the Qataris to take AJA off the air is addressed in Howard's amended complaint, which states, "Al Jazeera Media Network’s Investigative Unit will not be affected by Al Jazeera America’s imminent shutdown, as the employees of the Investigative Unit report to executives of the Al Jazeera Media Network."

— Jay Penske has settled a $10 million lawsuit with Reed Elsevier, former owner of Variety. After Penske's 2012 purchase of the entertainment trade publication, an issue arose over an agreement for a festival focused on film, TV, new media and finance. Variety was brought to court by the Beverly Hills Media Group for repudiating the fest deal. Reed Elsevier came to a settlement with BHMG and then sought nearly $1.8 million from Penske. In turn, Penske claimed that Reed Elsevier hadn't disclosed the BHMG deal plus amendments to Variety's contract with a printing company. On Jan. 12, the parties told the judge in a letter that a confidential settlement resolving the litigation had been struck.

— For those who followed the legal saga over Innocence of Muslims, specifically actress Cindy Lee Garcia's attempt to assert a copyright interest in her performance and have a judge wipe the film trailer from YouTube, check out this new lawsuit from Brian McCabe against Entertainment One and Swirl Recording & Film. McCabe says he acted on a program titled Community Service, and that his agreement only gave Swirl the right to air his performance on TV networks, not DVD or online. He's now alleging that exhibition of the show has violated the copyright to his performance and further constitutes a violation of his right of publicity under New York law. The latter claim is probably doomed (see why here), but the copyright issue could give the New York judge an excuse to adopt or stray from what the 9th Circuit said in the Garcia case.