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Sci-Fi Wars
Sci-Fi Universe, June 1999
Cory Doctorow

Lawsuits are like dynamite: fun to watch in action, provided you do so from a safe distance. When Scott Edelman asked me to research sf's top ten lawsuits, I was both thrilled and terrified -- I like turning over rocks, but sometimes what you find underneath is too icky for polite discussion.

This article could never have been written without the invaluable research assistance of the Space Channel's Mark Aswith and the librarians at The Merril Collection. Thanks, guys.


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Now me, I love Judge Judy. Stern but tender, she doles out justice and harangues in equal measure, using her bench as a bully pulpit, telling it like it is. Didja see the one where Johnny Lydon (AKA Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten) was being sued by his drummer? Pure theatre! On the Wapner/Koch debate, I'm with the Rain Man -- it's time for Wapner. Koch was a rotten mayor, he's a rotten judge, and no amount of high-tech real-time Internet jiggery-pokery is going to disguise that. Of course, there's Judge Julius Hoffman, the notorious justice in the trial of the Chicago 7. He may've been an utter lunatic with a callous disregard for the law, but man, he had a real sense of drama.

There's a prurient thrill in watching two parties face off in a court of law. It's got all of the stylized violence of pro wrestling mated with the voyeuristic thrill of a neighbor's domestic dispute heard through the bedroom wall. And in the world of media lawsuits, there's the added bonus of staggering settlements, millions of dollars pried loose from one bloated fat-cat and fired off at another. In these litigious days of 1-800-WHIPLASH TV ads and multi-million-dollar coffee-spills, lawsuits seem a better bet than lottery tickets.

Dickens told it like it is: the law is an ass. The decisions that come down from the bench are frequently nonsensical, impossible for us poor laypeople to comprehend. Science-fiction is riddled with inexplicable and bizarre legal happenstance, like the ongoing feud between the Three Stooges' descendants, in which Bela Lugosi, Jr., argues for the Moe people. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.

Presented here, then, are ten of the weirdest, greediest, funniest, and most notable lawsuits in science fiction history.

1. Marv Wolfman versus New Line Cinema
No one disputes that Marv Wolfman created Blade, the comic and the character, which broke ground by featuring a black hero in his own book. What no one seems sure of is whether Wolfman turned over the rights to the vampire-stalker to Marvel Comics when he created him. There's a long tradition of comic-book creators being bilked out of their intellectual property by publishers (see Superman versus DC Comics, below), but Wolfman has a pretty good case here: no proof of written or oral agreement between Wolfman and Marvel exists. This is of import, because Marvel licensed Blade to New Line Cinema for their 1998 $45 million film of the same name. Now Wolfman is going after New Line, Time-Warner and Marvel for at least $35 million in a Los Angeles court. This may be a case of blood-from-a-stone, though, as Marvel is currently undergoing Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Go get 'em, Marv!

2. Vic Morrow's Severed Head versus Twilight Zone: The Movie
Vic Morrow was a perennial character actor, with a career stretching back to 1955. Cast as a racist transported in time to war-torn Vietnam where he learns Important Lessons About Tolerance in 1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie, Morrow met his spectacular demise in the final scene, where he shelters two Vietnamese children as a helicopter touches down to take them to safety in the midst of hammering explosions. Director John Landis -- whose passion for realism is evident in such films as Animal House and The Muppets Take Manhattan -- was hell-bent on an ultra-realistic show-stopping finale, and refused to allow dummies to stand in for Morrow and the little girls. We all know what happened next: the nearby explosions caused the copter to crash, crushing one child and decapitating both Morrow and the other child. Five years later, after a ten-month televised jury trial, Landis and co-defendants George Fosley (associate producer) and Dan Allingham (production manager) were acquitted of charges of Involuntary Manslaughter, claiming that they didn't realize it was dangerous, despite the testimony of dozens of prosecution witnesses to the contrary.

3. Mrs. Stoker versus Nosferatu
1922's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror is hailed as the seminal horror film of all time. Director F.W. Mirnau's adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula was brilliant on all counts, sporting a five-star performance by Max Shreck as Count Orlock, ground-breaking cinematography by Gunther Kramp and Fritz Arno Wagner, and spectacular costumes and art direction by spiritualist Albin Graun. Only one problem: Mirnau neglected to secure the permission of Florence Stoker, Bram Stoker's widow and holder of the copyright on his works. Instead, he cleverly disguised the film's inspiration by calling it Nosferatu instead of Dracula, rechristening the villain Count Orlock, moving the action from Transylvania to Germany, substituting Bremen for London, and moving the dates back about fifty years. It wasn't clever enough to fool a judge, who, shortly after the film's release, ruled in Florence Stoker's favor and ordered all prints and negatives destroyed. Oops. Mirnau's film company folded not long after, and it seemed like the film would be lost forever. Luckily, the British court-order was not enforceable in Germany, where the film material, including outtakes, was sold to a company called Deutsche Film Produktion, who released a string of butchered versions edited by ham-fisted auteurs. Various reconstructions of Mirnau's original film have surfaced since, free from legal injunction.

4. A.E. Van Vogt versus Alien
A.E. Van Vogt is one of the early pioneers of science fiction, a writer whose fiction career stretches back into the thirties. In December, 1939, he published a story in John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction, called "Discord in Scarlet." In 1950, he incorporated the story into his novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Along the way, this Canadian wrote seminal episodes for The Outer Limits, became one of the earliest converts to Scientology (running the L.A. Dianetics Foundation in the early fifties, then repudiating the whole thing), and grew to be one of the oldest surviving members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. In 1979, Ridley Scott based his seminal horror/science-fiction film, Alien, on "Discord in Scarlet." Which startled the hell out of Van Vogt, since he'd never granted permission for Scott to use the work. Scott denied it, then settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, adding Van Vogt to the credits. Lucky for Scott, they didn't end up in front of the same judge in the Stoker case. . .

5. Superman versus DC Comics
Illegal and immoral aren't synonymous. Many times, the court can't offer any remedy to those who've been clearly wronged. Superman's creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, naively signed the take-it-or-leave-it deal offered to them by Detective Comics in 1938, receiving the princely one-time sum of $130 for their efforts. Later on, the magnanimous publisher paid them $10 per page for their additional work. The deal was, your contract was on the back of your paycheck. When you endorsed the check at the bank, you also signed over all the rights for everything you'd done. They sued for additional remuneration, in a suit that lasted until the seventies, when they were ruled against. Years later, when time came to produce the Superman, the movie, Warner, DC's new parent company, was embarrassed by the collective voices of other comic creators into making reparation. The pair were by then living in direst poverty, with Shuster blind and Siegel crippled by a heart condition, and the two creators were awarded the generous sum of some $30,000 each, per year, for the rest of their lives; their share of the $1 billion-plus franchise.

6. Ellison versus Terminator
Harlan Ellison, notorious and prolific author, critic, reviewer, screenwriter and revenge artist is probably the last guy in the world you want to piss off. No, I mean, really. This is the guy who mailed a dead gopher to New American Library when they refused to release copyright on his books after they breached their contract by binding cigarette ads into them. One wonders, then, what was going through James Cameron's head when he casually quipped on-set that he got the idea for Terminator "by ripping off a couple old Outer Limits episodes." Specifically, Soldier and Demon With a Glass Hand, both written by Ellison (others have pointed out marked similarities with still more Ellison stories, including A Boy and His Dog and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream). Ellison called Cameron on this, and Cameron denied it, and Ellison responded with both a lawsuit and a series of full-page ads in Variety that lambasted Cameron as a plagiarist. Eventually, Cameron settled for a reported $72,000, and Ellison's name was appended to the credits in the home-video edition. But Cameron still hadn't learned his lesson! In 1991, a new video-release of Terminator dropped Ellison's credit, prompting yet another lawsuit and yet another $72,000. To this day, mentions of Ellison's name reportedly throw Cameron into a white-hot rage.

7. The Little Wooden Boy versus Warner Brothers
All his life, an obscure director named Francis Ford Coppola dreamed of making a movie based on Carlo Lorenzini's 19th century novel "Pinocchio." In the early nineties, it appeared Coppola would realize his dream at last. Warner Brothers expressed an interest in his film, which updated the story to reflect the personal history of his friend, rock-promoter and little-wooden-boy, Bill Graham, who, as a child, fled Vichy France to Spain. Sadly, negotiations broke down -- the studio and Coppola couldn't agree on how much he should be compensated for writing, directing, producing and (as Geppetto) starring in the film. Dejected, Coppola brought the project to another studio, Columbia, and was all set to go, when he found himself foiled by the Warner execs, who falsely claimed that they retained ownership of the Pinocchio project. This claim killed the deal, and Coppola's dreams were smashed. In July, 1998, a Los Angeles court awarded Coppola $20 million in damages -- the sum he expected to have earned if the Columbia picture had been made. Coppola's suit also asked for a judgement of 1-2% of the total worth of Warner Brothers in punitive damages. His testimony, which included open weeping, convinced the jury: a week later, they awarded him a further $60 million. Brother, that's a lot of puppets.

8. Stephen King versus Lawnmower Man
In 1970, Stephen King wrote a short story called "The Lawnmower Man," publishing it in Cavalier magazine. Time passed, and Stephen King, author, morphed into Stephen King, one-man-publishing-industry. A British company, Allied Vision, acquired film rights to the story, and their American distributor, New Line, released the movie as Stephen King's Lawnmower Man. The movie stank, and had little or nothing to do with the short story, and Stephen King decided he'd better distance himself from the product. So he successfully sued New Line and Allied, forcing them to change the title to Lawnmower Man. Under the terms of the judgement, the film companies could still mention the fact that Lawnmower Man was based on the story, but were required to recall all advertising and media that mentioned King's name. But they didn't. King went back to court, seeking a judgement of contempt against New Line, citing numerous instances in which New Line dragged its heels in undertaking the recall-and-relabel project. New Line's defence? In a word: "Oops." The did their best, they tried as hard as they could, but, shucks, what did King expect? The court was unamused, and ordered a $10,000-per-day fine until New Line got its act together. Not to mention that New Line was ordered to turn over "any unlawful profits" they'd earned since the original judgement. Thirty days later, King went back to court, seeking yet another judgement of contempt. The court ordered a further $10,000 per day, and required New Line to phone all the retailers who had failed to respond to mailings. New Line is currently appealing the whole mess, and Stephen King's bank account waxes fat.

9. Paramount versus Joy of Trek
Trek fans feel more than a little proprietary when it comes to their favorite TV show. Maybe it's because the original series was saved from cancellation by a massive grassroots letter-writing campaign. Trekkers saved the show, so it's theirs, right? Well, not legally -- and not as far as Paramount, Trek's parent company, is concerned. Paramount made Internet history a few years back by cease-and-desisting the proprietors of numerous, non-commercial Trek fan sites on the Web. When it comes to defending their copyright against even the most benign of infringement, their terrier-like grip is second only to the Disney Empire. So when Samuel Ramer, a Trekker married to a non-Trek Gentile, published his guide for mystified spouses of Trekkers, "Joy of Trek: How to Enhance Your Relationship With a Star Trek Fan," it was a sure-bet that he'd be hearing from Paramount's lawyers. And he did. In June, 1998, the judge of the U.S. District Court in New York ruled that Ramer's use of episode synopses constituted an infringement of Paramount's copyright, and enjoined his publisher from further distributing the book. The judge rejected Ramer's claim that his references constituted "fair use," a legal term referring to usage without permission of copyrighted material for review, analysis and parody, but noted that Ramer had not been motivated by greed; but rather by a genuine desire to explain the Trek phenomenon to his wife and other confused Spousal Units. aramount disagreed, and wrote threatening letters to bookstores telling them that they would be breaking the law if they sold their current stock of "Joy of Trek," which turns out not to be true. So Ramer's getting his own back, countersuing Paramount at this moment.

10. Gremlins versus Furby
It spawned a Christmastime feeding frenzy that surpassed even Tickle-Me-Elmo. It employs the kind of artificial intelligence that you'd expect to see in a MIT doctoral thesis. It's been banned from in-air use by the FAA, ostensibly because its electronics could interfere with aircraft instrumentation, but more probably because the flight attendants were threatening labor action if they were forced to sit through one more twelve-hour Furbish session. It clinched Hasbro's acquisition of Tiger Toys. I asked for one for Christmas, but no one loved me enough to buy me one. It's Furby, 5" of giggling, grunting fun, an adorable nonsense machine that will probably end up on the Cabbage Patch scrapheap by next Christmastime. And it is the spitting image of Gizmo, the star of the 1984 smash Gremlins. Warner Brothers and Hasbro settled out of court in time for Christmas, 1998, for an undisclosed, seven-figure sum, and Hasbro's toy designers have gone back to the drawing-board, redesigning the Furby 2.0 so that it no longer infringes on Gizmo's likeness.

The millennium is creeping up on us fast. Technology flies, copyright law crawls. The advent of the MP3 audio format makes it possible to record an entire shelving-unit of CDs onto a single DVD; Tor Books is releasing its fiction as pay-for-download PalmPilot editions; broadband Internet technologies like ADSL promise the long-delayed video-on-demand that the cable companies have been promising for a decade. Movie studios are re-selling product-placement for video releases, so M&Ms can pay to be digitally airbrushed over the Reese's Pieces in the home edition of ET: The Extra Terrestrial. Humphrey Bogart's estate is reselling his likeness to be Forest-Gumped into Pepsi ads. Cut-up artists Negativland continue to sample and remix TV ads, movies, industrial films and other "found media," making new things from old.

The vast majority of entertainment litigation revolves around intellectual property, and each technological innovation sparks a new round of lawsuits. Witness the flap when National Geographic reissued their back-issues on CD-ROM, without paying any additional money to their contributors, arguing that re-issuing on CD-ROM is equivalent to going back to the presses for another print run when the first sells out. The writers and photographers sued, National Geo won, and now Wizards of the Coast plans to do the same thing with the back-numbers of Dragon magazine.

The common thread running through most entertainment lawsuits is that of creators -- writers, mostly -- getting shafted by megacorps.

The irony here is that these same corporate entities are the first to cry foul when a writer borrows their material for, say, a humorous Trek guide book; or a consumer copies a CD to MP3 and plays it on her computer.

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