Elephant-Rights Documentary Provokes Charge of Idea Theft

How I Became an Elephant Still - H 2012

How I Became an Elephant Still - H 2012

Idea theft lawsuits are common, but it's not every day that one centers around the actions of a teenage animal rights activist and her father.

Juliette West is the 16-year-old star of How I Became an Elephant, a documentary from producers including actresses Jorga Fox (CSI) and Emily Deschanel (Bones). The film released this year tells the story of West's journey to Asia to save elephants in captivity.

She's been hailed by the animal rights community for her efforts as an activist, but she's also caught up in another story that's common in Hollywood these days.

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Last year, Melya Kaplan, another animal rights activist, and Nancy Gershwin, a former journalist at ABC and NBC who now consults for HBO, sued Juliette's father, Lee West, and associate Michael Tobias for breaching an implied contract to work together on the project. The case continues after a ruling last week by a Los Angeles Superior judge.

In the lawsuit, Kaplan alleges that the Wests contacted him to seek assistance in animal rights advocacy mentoring, and during the process, Kaplan described an idea for a potential documentary about the story of elephants through the eyes of a young adolescent girl. Lee West is said to have volunteered her daughter, agreed to raise financing, and so Kaplan says she continued working with them in the belief that she'd be incorporated into the project.

West and Tobias then are charged with secretly pursuing the project with others. They are now being sued on a claim that's increasingly in vogue in idea theft cases -- that when the plaintiffs shared their original concept, there was an expectation of payment if later used. Of course, it's not often that teenagers and animal rights advocacy is subject to this type of litigation, and the defendants have spent the past year attempting to defeat the lawsuit.

The latest attempt came in a demurrer last month where West objected to the notion that Kaplan, as a rights advocate, had presented an agreement that matured into a formal, for-profit relationship to develop a commercial film.

According to the defendants' court papers, "Absolutely nowhere in the [First Amended Complaint] does it allege (or could Plaintiffs truthfully allege) that Defendant West had ever worked in the film industry; that Plaintiff Kaplan ever engaged in for-profit film ventures; or that either of them (even mistakenly) believed the other to be involved in the for-profit film business."

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Kaplan and Gershwin, who was to be a producer on the film that Kaplan envisioned, say that isn't true, that the plan discussed was to find top director so that this would be a mainstream commercial film with a wide reach.

In any case, the lawsuit continues after a judge last week denied the demurrer, finding there were sufficient facts alleged to state causes of action against the defendants.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner