Suing Hollywood: why writers always lose

A screenwriter friend of mine, currently involved in a copyright infringement lawsuit against a studio, recently sent me this article written by Steven T. Lowe, a Los Angeles entertainment attorney.   It’s a pretty depressing piece.  Mr. Lowe explains why writers who’ve had their stories stolen by movie studios face impossible odds finding justice in the courts.  Instead of allowing these cases to reach a jury, more and more judges are single-handedly deciding the matter of similarity between stories, and are not even considering the testimony of plaintiffs’ experts.

One of the more astonishing cases Mr. Lowe cites involved the motion picture The Last Samurai.  In the late 1990s, established screenwriters Matthew and Aaron Benay, through their literary agent, submitted a screenplay called The Last Samurai to a production company called Bedford Falls.  Their screenplay was “about an American war veteran going to Japan to help the Imperial Army by training it in the methods of modern Western warfare for its fight against a samurai uprising.”  The producers passed on the project.   Years later, the principles of that production company made their film The Last Samurai with a “near-identical (and quite unusual) historical premise with numerous other uncanny commonalities” including shared historical inaccuracies.  The Benays sued for copyright infringement and breach of an implied-in-fact contract.

They lost.

When a writer with as strong a case as the Benays’ can’t find justice, what is going on?  Mr. Lowe explains the odds against writers:

“In over 50 such copyright infringement cases against studios and networks decided by courts in the Second and Ninth Circuits between 1990 and 2010, every final decision handed down was in favor of the defendants.”

He also observes: “The determination of each case now rests almost entirely in the unfettered discretion of trial judges, who have consistently dismissed plaintiffs’ claims… While the courts may believe that sheltering studios from suit helps prevent the stifling of their artistic expression, stripping authors of virtually any hope of prevailing on infringement claims is just as chilling to the arts as making it too easy to assert those claims.”

So that’s how it stands for writers  today.  Even if you can prove earlier access by the producer (as my screenwriter friend did in his lawsuit), even when the two properties have essentially identical titles and uncannily similar plots, the studios will still defeat you.  What’s the solution for writers?

I’m sad to say, I don’t think there is one.

Publishers Weekly prints my War on Alzheimer’s piece

This appears in Publishers Weekly (August 7)

It may be something small, but it’s enough to scare you: you misplace your car keys, or you can’t remember the name of the movie you saw last week. Or your mind suddenly goes blank as you try to retrieve a word that hovers maddeningly out of reach. And you think, that’s it, I’m getting Alzheimer’s disease. While most people of a certain age have probably experienced that stab of anxiety, I’m particularly fearful. My father died with Alzheimer’s.

I say he died with it, not of it, because one can live with Alzheimer’s for years until some other illness—a heart attack, a stroke—mercifully ends the agony. For two decades, Alzheimer’s ate away at the man who was once my father, robbing him of speech, leaving him mute through a long, grim twilight.

As a writer, I’m particularly horrified by the prospect of words, the tools of my trade, slipping away from me. Like many of my friends, I’m trying to avoid the disease by staying physically fit and mentally active, but Alzheimer’s remains the only cause of death in the U.S.’s top 10 that can be neither prevented nor cured. It costs the U.S. $226 billion to care for our current five million Alzheimer’s patients, and by 2050, it’s projected that Alzheimer’s will cost our nation a trillion dollars. It destroys many more American lives than terrorism in this country ever has. Isn’t it time we declared war on this devastating enemy?

This war won’t be fought on battlefields but in research facilities, and our soldiers will be scientists. As a medical doctor, I’ve witnessed dramatic changes in medicine over the decades, and I’m certain that a cure for Alzheimer’s is within reach. In 2013, to help fund that research, I began my War on Alzheimer’s fund drive. I chose to work with the nonprofit Scripps Research Institute, an internationally known leader in basic biomedical research, because I knew the money would go straight to their Alzheimer’s research program.

I had noticed the importance of small donations to political campaigns, and I thought that same strategy might work for my campaign. Every $5 given to my cause (managed through GoFundMe) automatically placed the donor in a random drawing for various prizes, including autographed copies of my books; Rizzoli & Isles T-shirts, hats, and DVDs; and two grand prizes: the chance to name a character in my next Rizzoli & Isles novel. The more money you donated, the more chances you had at a prize. I pledged to match donations up to $25,000.

We raised over $50,000 in that first drive two years ago. My campaign wasn’t just about raising money; it was also about sharing personal stories of loved ones we’d lost to Alzheimer’s. On my campaign’s tribute page, donors wrote about their once-vibrant mothers and fathers who had faded into oblivion, just as my own father had. They posted photos and shared their fears that they too would one day succumb. They found comfort in knowing that they were not alone.

When I contacted the two grand-prize winners to ask which names they wanted as characters in my novel, one winner said, “Please use the name of my late mother. She died of Alzheimer’s, and I want to see her live again.”

This, I felt, was a sacred assignment. The character had to be worthy of his mother’s name, someone who wouldn’t simply walk on the page and walk off again. Someone who would have an adventure of her own and would live to tell the tale. And so Millie Jacobson, named after a woman who died of Alzheimer’s, made her entrance on the very first page of Die Again. Stranded in the African bush, Millie falls in love, fights for her life, and nearly loses her sanity. She emerges triumphant, a scrappy survivor who helps Jane Rizzoli catch a killer. Alzheimer’s disease may have killed her namesake, but this Millie Jacobson would live on.

Millie’s fictional adventure may be over, but my War on Alzheimer’s will continue until there’s a cure. I’ve already launched a second fund-raiser on GoFundMe, and once again, two winning donors will have a chance to name a character in my next Rizzoli and Isles novel. I hope other authors will join the fight for more Alzheimer’s research dollars by spreading the word, or by launching their own fund-raisers. There are a number of excellent biomedical research institutes around the country, and they can all use our support. Words are the tools of our trade. Let’s use them now to fund a cure, so those words won’t slip away from us forever.

If you would like to donate — and maybe win the chance to appear in a Rizzoli & Isles novel — visit my GoFundMe page.


Publishers Weekly review of PLAYING WITH FIRE

Publishers Weekly has not always been kind to me.  So happy to see that they like PLAYING WITH FIRE:

On a trip to Rome, violinist Julia Ansdell, the narrator of this haunting standalone from bestseller Gerritsen (The Bone Garden), buys an old music book titled Gypsy from an antique shop. Inside the book, on a loose sheet of paper, is a handwritten waltz, Incendio, by one L. Todesco. Back home in Boston, Julia plays Incendio on her violin, but doing so appears to set off a series of calamities, starting with the death of the family cat, that upset her relationships with her husband, Rob, and their three-year-old daughter, Lily. Julia subsequently travels to Venice, to try to learn more about the music and its Jewish composer, Lorenzo Todesco. Flashbacks spanning 1938 to 1944 chronicle Lorenzo’s tragic story, in particular his romance with Catholic Laura Balboni, as the Fascist regime’s ever harsher anti-Semitic laws tear families and friends apart. Gerritsen movingly depicts Julia’s search, which has some surprising repercussions and builds to a satisfying crescendo.

Join me in the War against Alzheimer’s

I’m looking through my late father’s old photos this weekend, and I came across this one of him in Germany, where he served in the US Army during WWII.  He appears to be wearing an MP armband.  I don’t recall him ever telling me he worked as an MP.  There are so many things he never told me about his life, and I’m sad that now I’ll never know, except through his old photos and documents.  All the memories he could have shared with me were stolen from him long before he died.

My dad in Germany during WWII.

My dad in Germany during WWII.

He had Alzheimer’s Disease.

I watch many of my friends now struggling to care for aging parents with Alzheimer’s.  I look at the emotional and economic devastation it has wrought on families and on our country as a whole.  Over 5 million Americans are now afflicted with Alzheimer’s and by 2025, that number will probably grow to 7 million. By 2050, unless we find a cure, we will be spending over a trillion dollars caring for these patients.  This is a disaster rolling toward us, yet our country doesn’t seem mobilized to fight an enemy that at this very moment is killing our loved ones, and is poised to take down my generation next.

As a doctor, I’ve watched how medical science has made enormous improvements in our lives over the last decades.  Peptic ulcers, once treated with major surgery, are now cured with a simple course of antibiotics.  Timely interventional medicine can now prevent strokes and heart attacks.  Medical science has made great strides just during my career, and there’s no reason researchers can’t find a cure for Alzheimer’s.  We just need the determination — and the funds — to support our scientists.

That’s why I launched my War on Alzheimer’s a few years ago.  I urged my readers to donate to the Scripps Research Institute, internationally known for its biomedical research.  Donations would go directly to their Alzheimer’s scientists.  To encourage donations, I offered the chance at two grand prizes: the chance to name a character in my next Rizzoli & Isles novel.  As little as $5 would enter you into a random drawing to see your name — or the name of a loved one — as a character in my book.   I promised to personally match up to $25,000. We raised over $50,000.  And the two winning names were characters who worked with Jane and Maura to catch a killer in DIE AGAIN.

The War on Alzheimer’s is an ongoing one, and it’s not over until we find a cure.  So I’m doing another fundraiser with my next Rizzoli & Isles book.  If someone you love suffers from Alzheimer’s, then you know how high the stakes are.  Please join me by spreading the word, and by donating to this vital research.  As little as $5 will give you a chance to name a character who might help solve a case — or be a killer!

To donate, visit my GoFundMe page.  Let’s fight this war — and win it together.

And if you’re on Twitter, tweet a photo of a loved one before he or she came down with Alzheimer’s.  Let’s not forget who they were before.  (#BeforeAlzheimers)