Hollywood's Top 10 Legal Disputes of 2014

The Sony hack and the Supreme Court's Aereo decision were important stories. But what was the biggest, most consequential legal dispute from the past year?

Momentous. That's the word to describe what happened to Hollywood's legal landscape in 2014.

If proof is needed, measure two rulings this past year from the U.S. Supreme Court. In May, the high court ruled against MGM's efforts to foreclose a rights fight over Martin Scorsese's classic film Raging Bull. The ruling, which will certainly open the courtroom gates to more litigation against entertainment studios, didn't crack our annual list of the year's biggest legal disputes. And in June, broadcasters scored a huge win at the Supreme Court against Aereo, the upstart digital service that aimed to revolutionize the distribution of television programming. Amazingly, when we took stock of the full year, the Aereo dispute fell two spots from the 2013 ranking of the most significant fights bedeviling the entertainment industry.

See more Hollywood's Most Fascinating Legal Sagas, From Casey Kasem to Michael Jackson

So what's bigger than Aereo? Read on. Here, in reverse order, are the legal dramas that were most gripping in 2014:

10. Sony Pictures confronts hackers and a nightmare data breach

There's a good argument that the Sony hack is the biggest story in the entertainment industry from the past year. The only reason why it doesn't rank higher on this list is that the fallout from the theft of employee data, executive emails, business contracts and more has barely begun. Even if it's true that the motivation of the hackers was to stop Sony from releasing The Interview, its film about the assassination of North Korea's Kim Jong Un, the studio's decision to go ahead with the film's distribution hardly ends this saga. There's already been six class action lawsuits filed against Sony from former employees who allege the studio could have done more to prevent the breach. Sony is also threatening media outlets for publishing its trade secrets and intellectual property. What's next? The possibilities range from lawsuits over pay discrimination to breached non-disclosure agreements, and even if Sony gets lucky, the rare peek at studio profitability and star paychecks promises to make its way into deal rooms as Hollywood agents and lawyers leverage the newly discovered secrets.

9. Quentin Tarantino sues Gawker over Hateful Eight

The year began with a different leak that when measured against what happened to Sony looks tiny, but nevertheless commanded international news attention and sparked a lawsuit that had the potential of setting precedent. Quentin Tarantino was not very happy when unauthorized copies of his unproduced script, The Hateful Eight, began circulating online, and in January, the famed director took legal action against Gawker for allegedly facilitating copyright infringement by linking to a file-transfer site where the screenplay could be downloaded. Gawker put up a defense that challenged whether clicking readers were actually committing direct infringement, and in April, a judge agreed that the lawsuit had shortcomings. Tarantino had the opportunity to refile an amended lawsuit with more clarity, but rather than battling over the issue of a news organization's fair use to link to leaked material, Tarantino has apparently backed down, going ahead with production on Hateful Eight, and leaving such a fight for another day. Maybe Sony will take up the fight?

Read more
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Todd McCarthy's 10 Best Films of 2014
The Best Television of the Year
The Most Viewed Trailers of 2014

8. Are there sex-abuse skeletons in Hollywood's closet?

Hollywood was rocked this year by claims of decades-old sex abuse. The volleys began in April, when Michael Egan accused X-Men director Bryan Singer and three others of abusing him fifteen years earlier, when Egan was a teen. All four denied the allegations, and Egan's cases crumbled when his own contradictory sworn statements emerged. He withdrew his lawsuits, was scolded by a judge for lying in court, and now finds himself a defendant in a malicious prosecution case and under a federal criminal fraud indictment for an alleged sham investment scheme. In October, a tape of 7th Heaven actor Stephen Collins surfaced in which he appeared to admit molesting three underage girls over twenty years ago, which he later confirmed. Also in October, video of a stand-up routine about Bill Cosby went viral, resurrecting rape charges that had long simmered but never attracted sustained attention. As more accusers emerged — more than 20 women so far — and networks canceled projects, the comedian's lawyers denied the allegations. Suits by two women are pending.

Read more Bill Cosby Sexual Assault Allegations: How Much Did NBC Executives Know?

7. James Bond and Marvin Gaye have something in common

Allegations of idea theft fly around often in the entertainment industry, and more often than not, the lawsuits turn out to be more of a nuisance than a real troublemaker. But every so often, litigants have the resources to bring quite a fight. This past year showcased two disputes involving claims of misappropriation that survived the notoriously difficult preliminary round. In one dispute, MGM and Danjaq, rightsholders of the lucrative James Bond franchise, sued Universal over Section 6, an upcoming film about the early days of the U.K.'s spy agency. Despite Universal's argument that the lawsuit was "premature" since it hadn't actually produced the film yet, a judge allowed the case to move forward. Both sides are trotting out Hollywood Reporter power lawyers in the battle. The same goes for the lawsuit over the monster hit song, "Blurred Lines," alleged to be a rip-off of Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up." The dispute hasn't only hurt the reputation of singer Robin Thicke, but also got past a motion for summary judgment, meaning it's heading to trial this February in what could be the highest profile courtroom battle over songcraft since George Harrison's 1976 loss over "My Sweet Lord."

6. Al Gore fires legal bomb at Al Jazeera America

Exactly why was it that Al Jazeera was so intent on keeping its disputes with AT&T and DirecTV so far away from media inspection? A lawsuit brought in August by former vice president Al Gore, co-founder of Current TV, might have provided clues. Gore sold his cable news network to the Qataris for $500 million, but $65 million was held in escrow. In his lawsuit, Gore alleges that the money has essentially become a slush fund to buy favor for Al Jazeera America's cable and satellite distributors, that after making an ill-advised deal with Time Warner Cable, Al Jazeera has been encouraging the distributors to file baseless claims. It's an alleged conspiracy that's remarkable even by Hollywood standards, and the lawsuit has led to Al Jazeera returning fire on Al Gore as well as one judge's decision to stand up and peel back some of the secrecy.

5. Midnight Rider death brings lawsuits, criminal action and focus on safety on set

Producers and film crews sometimes joke they have "cinematic immunity" as they take risks or bend rules to grab an unusual shot. But a Georgia incident in February may have ended that misconception when a train killed assistant camerawoman Sarah Jones during filming of the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider on a trestle bridge. The death led to an outpouring of grief — and litigation. Jones' parents sued the filmmakers and others, and settled with most defendants other than the railroad, CSX, which said the filmmakers had twice been denied permission to shoot on the tracks. Allman sued the filmmakers, then settled, and an injured crewmember sued as well. Meanwhile, director Randall Miller, producers Jody Savin and Jay Sedrish and first assistant director Hillary Schwartz were charged with involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass. They pled not guilty, and a trial, set for March 9, may clarify the tangle of responsibility.

See more 'Midnight Rider' and More On-Set Accidents

4. Innocence of Muslims ruling causes huge freak-out

In what might have been the biggest courtroom surprise of 2014, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February that Innocence of Muslims actress Cindy Lee Garcia could assert a copyright interest in her performance in the film and that as a result, the controversial anti-Islamic film had to be removed from YouTube. The ruling not only upset traditional understandings about joint authorship, but led Google to warn of impending Hollywood chaos. The prospect of bit performers having the power to "veto" distribution of works was fearsome enough for Netflix, news organizations, documentary filmmakers, Facebook, eBay, Gawker, Twitter, Yahoo, Kickstarter and others to join with Google in begging for reconsideration. Even after 9th Circuit Chief Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski amended the ruling, a decision was made to rehear the dispute en banc. A video of the lively arguments from December 15 can be seen here.

3. Aereo loses to TV broadcasters at the Supreme Court

On one side were TV broadcasters who told the nine justices of the high court that a decision in favor of Aereo threatened to upend the billions of dollars that the TV industry invested in programming. On the other side came warnings that a decision to take an expansive view of public performance rights would mean the possible death of technologies like DVRs and cloud computing. On June 25, the Supreme Court elected to go with the TV broadcasters, preserving the status quo by determining that Aereo's system was analogous to cable operators, but impermissible unlicensed. The decision was a major relief to TV broadcasters with a federal judge later issuing an injunction. The FCC later proposed changing the definition of multichannel video programming distribution service to include online TV services and there's hanging uncertainty about time-shifting services, but it's likely won't matter to Aereo, which declared bankruptcy and lost a near $100 million bet on the future of television.

Read more Aereo Ruling: The Winners and Losers (Analysis)

2. NCAA athletes win antitrust lawsuit

There's a strong argument to be made that the Aereo battle would have looked very different if it were not for live sports, the DVR-proof commodity that prompts broadcasters to pony up billions of dollars in rights and consumers to refrain from cutting their cable cords. The unfettered ability to license such cash cows as college football bowl games and March Madness basketball games without any compensation to athletes took a hit this past August when a federal judge ruled in favor of a class action lawsuit led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon that the NCAA unlawfully restrains them from licensing their names and images in TV game telecasts and videogames. The decision, if upheld on appeal, not only paves the way for athlete pay — which some believe could bolster the NCAA power conferences and undermine the popularity of the games. It also potentially removes the athletes from directly challenging the TV broadcasters in lawsuits. Already, there's been one class action filed, and while the judge in the O'Bannon case shrugged off the First Amendment concerns, the broadcasters are screaming about a disruption to sports broadcasts, newscasts ... even small-town parades.

1. The debate over net neutrality explodes

Almost everyone agrees that the future of entertainment will continue along digital networks, but who will control that future? In January, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a huge decision by knocking out the FCC's Open Internet orders. Initially, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler seemed primed to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but then appeared to do a 180 by embracing potential rule changes that would allow content companies to pay Internet service providers for faster service. This led to more than four million comments filed at the FCC, including by many in Hollywood who feared the ramifications of letting vertically integrated media conglomerates control the pipes. The debate over net neutrality has complicated the regulatory review of the entertainment industry's biggest proposed merger of 2014 — Comcast's $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable — and become political as President Barack Obama, fresh off a defeat in the midterms, made the adoption of strong net neutrality rules a priority. In response, with the FCC still primed to figure out how to move forward, Comcast has come down hard against reclassifying internet service as a utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act and accusing Netflix of manipulating the review of its merger. Whether or not regulation of broadband lines is regulated in the strongest possible sense is a subject that will clearly impact Hollywood for generations to come.

Read more Net Neutrality: How Obama's Call for Federal Regulation Changes the Debate

Just missed the cut: The Raging Bull decision; NBCU settles a lawsuit with ex-interns for $6.4 million; Paramount beats Wall Street investors in a long-running case; Viacom can't escape Cablevision's antitrust lawsuit over channel tying.

On the radar for 2015: Dish Network's attempt to save ad-skipping, place-shifting technology; Fox's appellate attempt to reverse summary judgment for former interns; a possible billion dollar lawsuit against YouTube; and a trial as big as Godzilla.

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

With contributions from Jonathan Handel

Email: jh@jhandel.com
Twitter: @jhandel