Warner Bros. Sued by Filmmaker Over 'The Ghostman'

Warner Bros. Pictures Logo - 2012

Warner Bros. Pictures Logo - 2012

From the department of unintended consequences comes a lawsuit against Warner Bros. over The Ghostman, a planned film adaptation of Roger Hobbs' novel about a fixer who aids bank robbers in disappearing after botched heists.

Warners acquired film rights to the novel last year in a six-figure deal, and it's being developed by Kevin McCormick's Langley Park Pictures (The Gangster Squad). The film project hasn't advanced very far yet but it has already drawn a complaint in Massachusetts federal court from a screenwriter who says he's also been working on a heist thriller movie titled Ghostman.

Mike O'Dea, the plaintiff, alleges copyright infringement and violation of the Lanham Act from Warners' "use of the identical theme, central character and title."

Never mind that the film hasn't come out. O'Dea, who says he is in post-production on his own work, is pointing to Warners' recent lawsuit to stop a film with the word "Hobbits" in the title.

Last November, Warners sued Global Asylum, makers of the low-budget "mockbuster" Age of the Hobbits for attempting to trade off the release of its own The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The following month, a federal judge enjoined the distribution of the defendant's film despite arguments that "Hobbits" existed separately from J.R.R. Tolkien's creation and was protected by fair use.

As Isaac Newton's third law of motion states, for every action there is a reaction.

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Hollywood studios are well accustomed to defending lawsuits over stolen ideas, but almost always, it happens after some film or TV show has come out. Now, the lesson that O'Dea's lawyer Timothy Perry is drawing from the Hobbit case is that it's open season for lawsuits over yet-to-be released works.

According to O'Dea's lawsuit, Warners was sent a cease-and-desist letter but never responded.

"Warner Brothers failed to respond despite previously filing a similar suit against a competitor for use of the term 'Hobbit' in the title to a film shortly before the release of one of its J.R.R. Tolkien movies," says the lawsuit, which then goes on to reprint in boldface the studio's victory statement about prevailing against Asylum's "cynical business model... designed to profit from the work of others."

Here's the full complaint.

O'Dea (suing under his real name Michael Kenney) says that Warners' The Ghostman will create a likelihood of confusion to his Ghostman and have a "devastating effect" on his reputation and the potential of his movie.

What O'Dea doesn't say is how his "Ghostman" has achieved secondary meaning in the marketplace nor how Warners' film is substantially similar to his own. And there isn't any great explanation why his movie is comparable to the studio's $180 million budgeted Hobbit, although he does attach a local press clipping ("Filmmaker seeks fame with 'Ghostman'") to the complaint. He's seeking an injunction and further damages.

Warners hasn't yet responded to a request for comment.

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