Hollywood's 10 Most Gripping Legal Dramas of 2012

From the SOPA war to the Golden Globes trial to a salary standoff at "Modern Family," these are the legal stories that made showbiz nervous in 2012.

It was a year that saw Hollywood try (and fail) to enact tough new antipiracy measures and try (and fail ... at least so far) to prevent new digital upstarts such as Dish's commercial skipper. Here, in reverse order, are the cases, the disputes and the legal issues that made headlines in this space in 2012.

10. The U.S. vs. Kim Dotcom

The year began with lots of noise on the piracy front. As Hollywood struggled to persuade lawmakers to adopt punishing new laws intended to crack down on international copyright infringement, federal law enforcement filed the biggest criminal copyright case in U.S. history. Amid international protests aimed at stopping enactment of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, the U.S. was able to force a shutdown of Megaupload and force the arrest of its flamboyant founder Kim Dotcom. Looking ahead, it remains unclear whether Dotcom will be extradited. The U.S. was able to gain cooperation from authorities in New Zealand to seize his assets and begin the extradition process, but the case has triggered a harsh reaction and political sensitivities in New Zealand. This might be the year that Hollywood began losing the public relations battle on the piracy front, but the industry still has efforts in the works in its ongoing war on piracy.

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9. Fallout From Hackergate

A year after Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. shuttered News of the World after it was revealed that the newspaper had hired private investigators to intercept voice messages, the company continued to clean up the mess. The legal bill for settling hundreds of civil claims from the likes of Sienna Miller, Steve Coogan, Jude Law, Charlotte Church and Hugh Grant is estimated by the company to be more than $224 million. News Corp. also is facing some angry shareholders who contend that the company's board could have exercised its duties better. This year also saw the release of the long-awaited findings of Leveson Inquiry looking into U.K. media ethics and standards, and News Corp. also decided to split out its publishing business -- in part to separate the legal dramas of its newspapers from the profitable film and TV empire.

8. TV Faces Its Digital Future

This year, TV broadcasters found themselves repeatedly in court arguing that billions of dollars in money from advertising and cable and satellite fees faced major threats from new technologies. In the first round of a legal fight against Aereo, an upstart digital TV distributor backed by Barry Diller, the networks were unable to gain an injunction against a service that captured over-the-air signals to be streamed to users' tech devices. Fox also had to stomach a mixed ruling in a lawsuit against Dish Network over advertising-skipping DVR services known as AutoHop and PrimeTime Anytime, which the broadcasters contend constitute an unauthorized video-on-demand product. The denials of injunctions in both the Aereo and AutoHop cases have led to appeals. Broadcasters experienced a bit more legal success when Viacom was able to persuade the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals to revive its huge copyright lawsuit against YouTube.

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7. The Golden Globes on Trial

In May, Dick Clark Productions won the first key round in its long-running legal fight against the Hollywood Foreign Press Association over TV rights to the Golden Globe Awards show. The HFPA, owner of the Globes, had sued the show's longtime producer over a deal DCP struck in 2010 -- without telling the HFPA -- to keep the telecast on NBC through 2018. But after a three-week trial, Federal Judge Howard Matz issued an 89-page opinion siding with DCP, ruling that a 1993 amendment to its contract with the HFPA gave DCP the right to negotiate a new deal and produce the show as long as it remains on NBC. The case isn't over -- another phase will deal with several financial issues -- but the ruling paved the way for DCP to be sold in September to Guggenheim Partners (an owner of The Hollywood Reporter) for about $370 million, more than double its sale price in 2007.     

6. Hollywood Loves a Good Idea

Hardly a week goes by these days without a Hollywood studio being sued for stealing someone's idea. More and more, the smart plaintiffs are eschewing copyright suits for claims that when an idea is submitted and accepted for review, there's an expectation that if the material is later used, the writer will get something. The breach-of-implied contract disputes got a shot in the arm when the 2nd appellate circuit revived in June a lawsuit brought by Forest Park, the production company of Hayden Christensen, against Universal Television over the series Royal Pains. On the other hand, not all of these claims end badly for Hollywood studios. In April, a federal jury sided with producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick in the long-running dispute over whether the script for them 2003 Tom Cruise hit The Last Samurai was stolen. Sometimes, even a big Hollywood company finds the lesson that it's terribly difficult to protect creative ideas. Such was the case when a federal judge denied an attempt by CBS to stop ABC from airing The Glass House because of alleged similarities to Big Brother.

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5. Agents vs. Clients vs. Agents

2012 saw an apparent increase in the number of lawsuits brought by talent agencies and management companies against their former clients for unpaid commissions. Suits were brought against talent ranging from Chris Pine to Leah Remini to Jersey Shore star DJ Pauly D. In August, a federal judge upheld UTA's right to $325,000 from Men in Black 3 director Barry Sonnenfeld -- who parted ways with the agency about 17 years ago -- because his UTA-negotiated deal to direct the original MiB gave him first dibs on any sequels. And in perhaps the oddest agency case of the year, The Dark Knight Rises director Christopher Nolan sued both his former agency CAA and his current reps at WME, asking a court to figure out which company should be collecting commissions from the megablockbuster. That case remains unresolved, as does a case Nolan's agent Dan Aloni is fighting against his former employer CAA over an unpaid bonus he claims he's owed. 

4. What Did You Say About Me?

We live in an age where comments echo throughout social media and defamation lawsuits don't often result in big trial verdicts. For evidence, just see the whimpering end to the one brought against Britney Spears and her parents by her former manager Sam Lufti. After an entertaining trial that featured a shaved head and Justin Timberlake, among other things, a judge dismissed the lawsuit for lack of evidence. The outcome was different for casino mogul Steve Wynn, who was able to gain a big $40 million verdict (later cut in half by a judge) against Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis for stating publicly that Wynn wanted to kill him. Quincy Jones took the stand to reject Francis' main defenses in the case. Looking forward, 2013 could bring a big defamation trial: The law firm suing Courtney Love for talking about bribery and corruption on Twitter and in the press is still raging

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3. Superman Fights Termination Battles

When Congress amended the U.S. Copyright Act in 1978, it meant that 35 years hence, authors could terminate copyright grants to publishers and record labels. Do the math: 1978 + 35 years = a ticking time bomb in 2013. As the date approaches, creators have been sending advance termination notices. More disputes in this realm likely will be hitting a courtroom soon. In the meantime, two big decisions came in 2012. The first was a victory in May by Village People singer-songwriter Victor Willis, who got a judge to agree with him -- and against a song publisher -- that he didn't need all co-authors to terminate his share of the copyright grant. The other was a major win in October by Warner Bros. defending against an attempted termination from the estate of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster. In a decision now on appeal, a judge ruled that a 1992 agreement with Shuster's sister precluded the termination attempt.

2. Modern Family Turns Into a Drama

In July, the six adult cast members of ABC's hit comedy banded together and sued producer 20th Television, claiming their contracts improperly bound them beyond the seven-year limit imposed by California law. Despite the lengthy legal arguments, the real reason for suing was to extract bigger salaries in one of the most heated contract renegotiations in years. The gambit worked: The stalemate ended days later with the cast receiving raises to about $170,000 per episode and a cut of the show's profits, escalating up to about $350,000 an episode if the sitcom makes it to an eighth season. 

1. A Shooting in Colorado

On Friday, July 20, a mass shooting occurred inside a movie theater screening a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. James Holmes, 24, has been charged with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder in connection with the shootings. As he awaits trial, a number of lawsuits also have been brought against the theater owner Cinemark, which now is arguing that a judge should reject these claims because it had no legal duty to foresee the tragedy. The year brought more gun violence when a gunman killed 27 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, including 20 children. The incident has sparked debate about violent video games. So far, nobody has suggested any legal culpability, but possible lawsuits and new government regulation might be something to watch for in the early months of 2013.

Just missed the cut:

  • In one of the most entertaining lawsuits of the year, Keith Olbermann sued Current TV after he was fired in late March for allegedly not showing up for work.
  • In May, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the FCC had violated TV broadcasters' due process in failing to give advance notice on policies concerning isolated instances of fleeting naughty words and nudity on television. However, the decision was far from the blockbuster one that many had been anticipating. Rather than deciding that decades of new technology including the advent of the Internet and satellite broadcasts had eradicated the need for censorship, the Supreme Court kicked the can down the road for more future battles over the government's role in policing public airwaves.