Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Hurt Locker lawsuit - the producers fight back

Many people heard about the lawsuit filed by Master Sergeant Jeffrey Sarver against the producers of The Hurt Locker just before it went on to win six Academy Awards last year. He claimed that the story was based on him, that he was cheated out of financial participation, and that he was owed millions of dollars. Among the more outrageous claims was that he coined the phrase "the hurt locker," a common expression dating back to the Vietnam War. And considering that many soldiers considered the film to be an irresponsible and unrealistic portrayal, it's odd that he'd want to claim to be the film's inspiration. But then greed has no logic.

Nonetheless, I was amazed that the blogosphere and comment boards sided with him and viewed him as something of a David against the big, bad Hollywood Goliath. What people don't realize is that these lawsuits are rampant. Hundreds of filmmakers have been sued, as well as other artists such as novelists. On rare occasions, there is merit to the claim. But more often than not, it's just people wanting to cash in on a financial hit. You don't ever hear of a flop getting sued.

Anyhow, you don't often see these complainants winning anymore. There were numerous lawsuits against Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Very little was made of the fact that all of them lost. They never had a chance to win since everyone was paid and signed contracts.

It won't come as a surprise then that little was made of the slow turn of events in Sarver case. First the defendants filed a motion to dismiss and asked that the case be moved from New Jersey to California. In November, Judge Cavanaugh refused to dismiss the case but agreed that California was the appropriate forum since none of the parties lived in New Jersey. Sarver had lived there previously and wished to try the case there since New Jersey doesn't have an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) statute to protect free speech and allow defendants to countersue.

Yesterday, the defendants did just that. They took advantage of the California setting to submit a 25-page motion to strike Sarver's lawsuit. It claims that Sarver lawsuit interferes with their free speech and are requesting that Sarver be ordered to pay over $19,000 in attorney fees to them.

The motion to strike states, "it is apparent from a review of the Film that it is not about Plaintiff. It is a fictional work. The fact that the writer who wrote the screenplay for the Film may have drawn inspiration and realistic details about the events he witnessed and people he met while embedded as a reporter with Plaintiff's unit in Iraq does not convert the Film from fiction to fact, or turn its fictional lead character into Plaintiff."

You can read the notion in its entirety below.

It's a shame that we live in such a litigious society that any time something is successful, greedy wannabes come crawling out of the woodwork with their hands out. Anyone with any sense would realize that Sarver couldn't prove that the character was based only on him and not the 100 others that Mark Boal met and interviewed for the original Playboy article.

And even if he could, filmmakers and artists aren't legally responsible for adapting a person's life. Mark Zuckerberg with all his billions couldn't touch The Social Network even though he was initially very unhappy with it being made -- and that film mentions him specifically by name. Films are made about real people all the time. Where they need to clear their work is if it is taken from some other written source or creation. Sarver didn't write anything down, whereas Boal did.

Don't be surprised if sometime down the road that this case gets tossed out, or that Sarver even ends up paying for the lawsuit. That would be the likely and just outcome. But it probably won't make the same big headlines.


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