When Harold Ramis died in late February, I reflected upon his long career in comedic acting and film. As a much less successful alumna of the comedy classes offered by Second City, I appreciate the subtle but hilarious humor that Ramis and his SCTV counterparts added to film and television. And after I had considered his impact, like any good copyright attorney, I asked the next logical question: How often had he been sued?
The answer, from what I could tell from reported law decisions, was three times, with the caveat that legal database searches don’t uncover most cases that settle early or cases that are threatened but not filed. The reported lawsuits followed the same fact pattern: an unknown author alleging that the plot of a successful movie co-written, directed, or produced by Ramis had infringed upon the plaintiff’s earlier treatment of the same idea, and that Ramis owed his success to the plaintiff’s contribution. The lawsuits appear loosely one per decade.
So here’s a brief rundown of those cases:
The first case, Meta-Film Associates v. MCA, concerned Animal House, which Ramis co-wrote. According to the plaintiff, author James Hart had written the screenplay Frat Rats and submitted it to a director for Universal in mid-1975. The director, dismissing the screenplay outright as “terrible,” never brought it to the attention of Universal executives.
Ramis, under the auspices of the National Lampoon Company, announced his intention to create a film based on high school or college life, and very soon after, another contact from Universal Studios contact National Lampoon expressing interest to produce. National Lampoon delivered the treatment for Animal House in early 1976. And predictably, the plaintiff sued, alleging that National Lampoon had copied Frat Rats. The judge ruled that the plaintiff had to prove National Lampoon had access to Frat Rats, and similarity, in inverse proportions to each other. The judge denied a motion for summary judgment, which would have allowed Ramis to win the suit outright before a jury trial. However, the judge also found as a matter of law that the plaintiff could not prove that National Lampoon had any access to Frat Rats, a ruling that had the effect of ending the lawsuit.
Lawsuit number two challenged the originality of Groundhog Day. In Arden v. Columbia Pictures, author Leon Arden alleged that Groundhog Day copied the idea of his novel, One Fine Day, in which the main character repeated the same day dozens of times. Again on a motion for summary judgment, the judge took painstaking detail to explore the plots of One Fine Day and Groundhog Day, co-written by Ramis.
This time, the defendants conceded (for purposes of the motion) that they had access to the novel. However, the judge concluded as a matter of law that the novel and the film were so dissimilar that there was no illegal copying. The court explained, “the idea of a repeating day, even if first conceived by the plaintiff, is not protectable.” The judge ponderously walked through the elements of plot, mood, characters and character development, pace, setting, sequence of events, and specific similarities to determine that no reasonable jury could find in favor of the plaintiff. (Good thing for Kate Atkinson and her current bestseller Life After Life, which expands upon the same idea.)
The third and most recent lawsuit involved a lesser-known Ramis work, The Ice Harvest. Here, in Coffman v. Ramis, the infringement was allegedly of a movie script registered with the Writers Guild of America, West. The registration included a description of how the town of Wichita Falls, Texas got its name. The Ramis-directed film The Ice Harvest, set in Wichita, Kansas, uses the sentence, “As Wichita falls, so falls Wichita falls,” which the plaintiff claimed was infringing.
This time, the court did not even need to get to summary judgment, but instead was able to dismiss the lawsuit because the complaint failed to state a claim. First, that sentence had been copyrighted before, in a song in 1981; second, whatever plaintiff claimed was infringing was far from original. As such, the magistrate judge concluded that the complaint was not viable.
Are there any themes here? Perhaps the Harold Ramis trilogy could demonstrate a shifting inclination of the court to dispose of copyright infringement cases earlier in their timelines. It’s not uncommon for successful movies to draw lawsuits based on tangential similarity between plotlines and characters, but that doesn’t mean they can be easily disregarded. And worse, they can also draw out opportunists. As one court noted in a copyright infringement lawsuit against Sex and the City writer Candace Bushnell, “this form and forum of combat does open the potential for opportunism and other kinds of abuse of process, and hence the undercurrent that runs with some frequency through the protestations of renowned defendants like Bushnell who are brought into the public arena to answer charges of wrongful conduct.”
Additionally, new standards for plaintiffs to state all legal complaints change the copyright litigation terrain. Copyright infringement cases are perfect candidates for jury trials; even if they have elements that can be decided “as a matter of law,” authors’ legal claims tend to be filled with factual determinations. For example , although the Animal House court found that National Lampoon couldn’t possibly have had access to Frat Rats before submitting its treatment to Universal based on witnesses’ testimony, the credibility of those witnesses is ultimately still in the purview of the jury. Additionally, although the Groundhog Day court found it not substantially similar to One Fine Day, perhaps the jurors would have come to a different conclusion. But in The Ice Harvest , decided under the new standards, it was much easier for the court never to get to factual determinations at all.
Of course, it’s important not to deduce too much from the case conclusions; each case has a unique set of circumstances, any of which could have contributed to the early disposition of the case. But the differing pretrial resolutions of Ramis’s cases – from refusing to grant summary judgment, but de facto resolution based on a single factor; to granting summary judgment, based on resolution of facts as a matter of law; to dismissing the plaintiff’s complaint outright – might suggest the increasing unwillingness of the courts to tolerate legal fiction-writing. Outside of Hollywood, that is.