Who Has the Right to Parody Keanu Reeves' Work In 'Point Break'?

Twentieth Century Fox

If you're staging a theatrical adaptation of the 1991 film Point Break and can't get Keanu Reeves to play a federal agent who goes undercover as a surfer, what do you do? The answer is partly the subject of a lawsuit.

Playwright Jamie Keeling had her own solution to this problem. Feeling the role should be played by actors who are untrained and unrehearsed, Keeling had audience members try out the role by reading cue cards. The trick was a success, and was one of a few elements that made a parody version called Point Break Live! a success as it toured the nation.

But the producer of the live version, New Rock, stopped paying Keeling royalties. It repudiated an agreement it had with Keeling, taking the position that Keeling had no right to her script since it was based on the film.

Keeling then sued, saying she registered a copyright on her script with those added elements.

In response, New Rock told a New York federal court last month that Keeling was attempting "to turn copyright law upside down by alleging exclusive copyrighted ownership of a parody without ever getting permission for such derivative copyright ownership from the owner of the work that is being parodied."

On Tuesday, New York federal judge Thomas Griesa rejected that argument and said the lawsuit could go forward.

Want proof that copyright laws can get pretty complicated when it comes to issues like parody? Judge Griesa notes:

"Creators of derivative works often register their own copyrights--without permission from the holder of the original copyright--and then sue those who create later derivative works from the same original but whose later derivative works are alleged to be too similar to the earlier derivative work and thus infringe on the earlier derivative work."

That's a mouthful, but essentially it means that someone who creates a parody can sue someone else who also is doing a parody. New Rock claimed that doing a parody was merely a "fair use" to a copyright infringement claim, but Judge Griesa has more respect for the parody genre, saying that parodies are indeed copyrightable so long as they are original. The next step in the case may be to figure out whether recruiting audience members to play Keanu playing Johnny Utah passes muster. The next next step may be staging a live version of this case.

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

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