The U.S. Supreme Court Denies Cert to Hollywood’s “Stolen Scripts” Case

By Maria Cheung

Reviewed by Jennifer Williams

The U.S. Supreme Court will not allow NBC Universal to appeal a decision in which two plaintiffs sued the studio and alleged that the idea behind the successful reality show Ghost Hunters was stolen from them. In rejecting the studio’s petition for a writ of certiorari, Hollywood will not get a chance to address an issue with the Supreme Court that has left the studios vulnerable to more lawsuits for stealing scripts.

The case, Montz v. Pilgrim Films & Television, was originally filed in 2006 by Larry Montz, a parapsychologist, and Daena Smoller, a publicist, who claimed they conceived the idea of a show about a team of paranormal investigators who go into haunted locations. Between 1996 and 2003, Montz and Smoller shopped screenplays and videos to NBC Universal executives with the intent of partnering on a series. Each time, NBC rejected their ideas. According to the lawsuit, one of the ideas Montz and Smoller pitched to NBC for a series was a show that would follow a team to allegedly haunted locations, where they would use equipment such as magnometers and infrared cameras to investigate reports of paranormal activity. The lawsuit alleges that the studio breached an implied agreement to pay Montz and Smoller if their material was later used.

The lawsuit was originally dismissed but was revived in 2010 when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that an implied promise of partnership satisfied the “extra element” needed to transform a copyright claim into a bona fide breach of contract claim. NBC appealed the decision with the full support of the Motion Picture Association of America and other studios, who argued that federal copyright law usurped state contract law. Hollywood hoped the Supreme Court would hear the case and address this issue because studios are frequently sued and criticized for stealing other people’s ideas. Additionally, copyright lawsuits are much less successful in court than contract claims.  Unfortunately for Hollywood, the Supreme Court decided on Monday, November 7th, not to review the case and give Hollywood the opportunity to re-litigate their side of the copyright aspect of the case.

Some attorneys in the copyright field are already predicting that this development will further lead to more uncertainty in the entertainment industry. Other courts of appeals including the 2nd and 4th Circuits have denied plaintiffs the opportunity of labeling idea theft and copyright cases as implied breaches of contract cases but now studios fear that the 9th Circuit’s decision may be controlling since the Supreme Court denied cert.

Dominique R. Shelton, an Intellectual Property litigator at Edwards Wildman Palmer, believes the Supreme Court’s decision will only lead to more idea theft lawsuits and may even change practices in how studios take pitches from established veterans in the industry. “Even though most companies do not take unsolicited pitches for fear of litigation, companies may become even more reserved about the solicited pitches that are entertained,” Shelton said.  Furthermore, Shelton added, “[f]rom the plaintiffs’ perspective, will California and other 9th Circuit venues become the jurisdictions of choice for filing idea theft cases based upon state law?”

In a statement issued after the Supreme Court’s decision, NBC expressed dismay over the court’s decision, but remained confident that it would ultimately prevail. “We are disappointed that the Supreme Court decided not to hear our challenge to the appeals court’s ruling on the threshold legal issue of copyright preemption,” NBC stated. “However, now that the lower court will begin to hear the actual facts, we are confident it will determine the case has no merit.”

First and foremost, basic copyright law 101 is based on the premise that ideas cannot be copyrighted. Thus, this is a major problem in entertainment law where writers, producers and other personnel solicit studios to create their projects. In turn, the studios or other people who have had access to the work, can potentially copy or recreate the original ideas into a successful project. Although I believe this should be addressed and dealt with either through legislation or the judicial system, I never truly thought the odds of winning were high for plaintiffs who assert breach of implied contract claims. I believe these cases are hard to prove since an implied contract usually means there is no written contract but a “meeting of the minds” was implied by the very situation. No matter what the outcome, this will be an interesting case to follow and actually see unfold when the lower court hears the facts for the breach of implied contract claim


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