Copyright Law Entertainment Law

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
[table id=4 /]

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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