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Apr 17 2015

Copyright Lawsuit Filed Against Joss Whedon Over “Cabin In the Woods”

Filmmaker Joss Whedon is being sued for $10 million by a writer who claims they stole his idea for the hit horror film Cabin in the Woods.
Writer Peter Gallagher has filed the lawsuit against the Avengers director and his co-writer/director Drew Goddard.

In his lawsuit filed this week in Federal Court in California, the author claims he registered a book with the Writers Guild of America called The Little White Trip: A Night in the Pines – which came out five years before the 2012 movie. Registering with the Writer’s Guild of America gives an author a unique WGA number assigned to the work and it is proof of what the author is they claiming is their work. The lawsuit claims there are many similarities between the novel and the movie. But I think it will be a close call here and the complaint does not tell us enough for anyone to make a rock solid prediction as to the outcome of the case.

At first glance, it may appear that Gallagher has a strong claim due to the many striking similarities between the two works of art. But because copyright does not protect ideas and facts, or material traceable to timeless themes, copying alone is not enough to prove copyright infringement. To prove copyright infringement, a copyright owner must prove that the infringer copied protectable material. When courts are asked to determine whether infringement has occurred, they must disregard non-copyrightable elements (such as ideas, plot devices and historical facts) and compare the original protectable elements in the works. Unfortunately, as this case will likely illustrate, there is no simple test to distinguish unprotected ideas from protected expression.

copyright logoUnder copyright law, only an author’s particular expression of an idea, and not the idea itself is protectable. Several prior law suits have held that basic plot, stock settings and stereotypical characters (e.g., prostitutes with hearts of gold, sympathetic mob hit men, precocious witty children, etc.) are not protected by copyright. These devices or tropes — which are part of every novelist’s and screenwriter’s toolkit — belong to a common pool of literary techniques.

In a copyright infringement case, the plaintiff is required to prove that the defendant actually copied its work, and that the copying was so “substantial” as to constitute an unlawful taking of plaintiff’s work. Unlawful copying exists when there is not only substantial similarity between two works, but substantial similarity between protectable elements. Character names themselves are not protectable under copyright (though they may be under trademark law – but that’s a subject for a different blog article) but they can provide some clue that the earlier work was copied and they can add to the totality of copying to help the plaintiff get to the “substantial” threshhold.

Here is a table which details the 25 similarities the plaintiff is relying upon

1. Group of five friends who recently graduated from high school (two couples and one guy) go on a getaway to a remote cabin in the woods.Group of five college friends (two couples and one guy) go on a getaway to a remote cabin in the woods.
2. Female lead names are Julie (blonde and blue eyes) and Dura (brunette)Female lead names are Jules (blonde and blue eyes) and Dana (brunette).
3. The lead characters take a vehicle to a remote cabin in the woods.The lead characters take a vehicle to a remote cabin in the woods.
4. The cabin the protagonists are going to is referred to as the “Brinkley house.”The cabin the protagonists are going to is referred to as the “Buckner house.”
5. As the friends are on their way to the cabin, they run into a local townie (bartender) who warns them that something is wrong with the cabin and then directs them to its location. The townie is working for third parties manipulating the eventsAs the friends are on their way to the cabin, they run into a local townie (gas station attendant) who warns them that something is wrong with the cabin and directs them towards the location. The townie is working for third parties manipulating the events.
6.The friends arrive at the cabin The friends arrive at the cabin which does not have cell phone reception.The friends arrive at the cabin The friends arrive at the cabin which does not have cell phone reception.
7.The first night in the cabin the characters stumble on an old storage area (attic).The first night in the cabin the characters stumble on an old storage area (basement).
8. In the storage area the friends uncover some objects (toy figurines, dolls, and photos) belonging to the family that previously lived thereIn the storage area the friends uncover some objects (toy figurines, dolls, photos, and a diary) belonging to the family that previously lived there.
9. In the storage area, female lead (Julie) finds an object (Hummel figurine) that she would like to take.In the storage area, female lead (Jules) finds an object (amulet) that she would like to take.
10.While on their trip, the protagonists learn that the house belonged to a family (the Brinkleys) where the father killed the mother, and the rest of the family (three children) died.While on their trip, the protagonists learn that the house belonged to a family (the Buckners) where the father killed the mother, and the rest of the family died (presumably three children – Anna, Judda, and Matthew).
11. The protagonists begin to drink alcohol and to play games.The protagonists begin to drink alcohol and to play games.
12. At the end of that first night, one of the couples (Julie and Ian) go off to be together (upstairs to bed) and leave the other three alone, the courting new couple (Dura and Matt) and the odd man out (Sam).At the end of that first night, one of the couples (Curt and Jules) go off to be together (in the woods) and leave the other three alone, the courting new couple (Dana and Holden) and the odd man out (Marty).
13. The female brunette lead, Dura, has a romantic scene on a couch with the sensitive, shy male lead (Matt) in front of the fireplace.The female brunette lead, Dana, has a romantic scene on a couch with sensitive, shy male lead (Holden) in front of the fireplace
14. The female brunette lead Dura is getting over a relationship.The female brunette lead Dana is getting over a relationship.
15. The outsider male lead (Sam) who is not romantically involved with any of the females smokes marijuana and walks outside to look at the stars.The outsider male lead (Marty) who is not romantically involved with any of the females smokes marijuana and walks outside to look at the stars.
16. Female lead (Dura) gets attacked, stabbed, and killed off by homicidal Brinkley father that previously lived there.Female lead (Jules) gets attacked, stabbed, and killed off by homicidal Buckner father (zombie version) that previously lived there.
17. Male lead (Sam) is killed.Male lead (Curt) is killed.
18. To persuade others who are in disbelief of the first lead character’s death, a severed body part (arm) is shown as evidence. 19. 21.. 22. 23. 24.. 25. The “Director” reveals theTo persuade others who are in disbelief of the first lead character’s death a severed body part (head) is shown as evidence.
19. Male lead (Ian) gets attacked and killed off outside the cabin by homicidal Brinkley father that previously lived there.Male lead (Holden) gets attacked, and killed off outside the cabin by presumably homicidal Buckner father (zombie version) that previously lived there.
20. Lead male (Matt) begins to suspect that the group is being manipulated by third party “puppeteers.”Lead male (Marty) begins to suspect that the group is being manipulated by third party “puppeteers.”
21. Lead male knocks over a ceramic object (vase) and discovers a camera inside set up to observe the friends.Lead male knocks over a ceramic object (lamp) and discovers a camera inside set up to observe the friends
22. Only two protagonists remain, no couples, one male lead (Matt) and one female lead (Julie).Only two protagonists remain, no couples, one male lead (Marty) and one female lead (Dana).
23. It is revealed that the friends have been manipulated by third parties for a new form of reality filmmaking attempting to capture real fear in its subjectsLead character (Marty) suspects that he is being manipulated by a reality television show.
24. The third party manipulators celebrate a job well done. In the background large flat screens play horror scenes. It's an odd juxtaposition to the horror that has just happened.The third party manipulators celebrate a job well done. In the background large flat screens play horror scenes. It's an odd juxtaposition to the horror that has just happened
25. The “director” (film director) reveals the film’s twist, that the lead characters have been watched and manipulated by a crew of others for the enjoyment of viewers.The “Director” reveals the film’s twist, that the lead characters have been watched and manipulated by a crew of others for the enjoyment of viewers

Many of these are cliches which the Scream franchise has milked for laughs over the years. But it is quite a collection of similar plot themes and devices and there is some similarity in the character names. Gallagher can also show that Whedon may have access to his work because Gallagher sold it on the street in Whedon’s Venice Beach neighborhood. The book was very popular in the area and Gallagher followed its initial run of 2,500 with a second sold-out run of 5,000 copies.

Without more detail about each of the 25 items, it is hard to say if this claim will stick. Whedon’s team will likely argue that at best the plaintiff can prove that there are simialrities but hey are not substantial and that both of them used age-old teen horror movie plot devices to move their works along.

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