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A “Buck Rogers” Partially Completed Screenplay Adaptation Is Not Sufficient Basis for a Declaratory Judgment Action

Posted on Mar 28, 2016 in Blog

In an interesting case decided in the US District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania¹, the court found that a producer, who had begun a screenplay adaptation for a movie based upon the character “Buck Rogers”, and who had been threatened with a copyright infringement suit, did not have a sufficient basis to sustain a declaratory judgment action.

The declaratory action plaintiff, Team Angry Filmworks, Inc. is a production company in Hollywood which has been working on a movie based upon the Buck Rogers character. The character Buck Rogers first appeared in a story titled “Armageddon-2419 A.D.” which originally published in 1928.

As part of the development of the film, the production company was creating a screen adaptation and alleged that it had already obtained interest in the movie from two major motion picture studios, Warner Bros. and Sony. The production company had also made a public announcement at the San Diego Comic Con in July 2015 of the development of the Buck Rogers based motion picture.

Upon hearing that a motion picture based upon the Buck Rogers character was in development, the trust that owns the Buck Rogers copyright verbally insisted that the production company cease and desist from developing the motion picture project, and threatened suit. The trust followed up with a cease-and-desist letter threatening to proceed with legal action if a satisfactory response was not received within 10 days.

The production company then filed a complaint for Declaratory Judgment in the Central District of California Western Division; however proper venue was found in the Western District of Pennsylvania, where the copyright owner trustee resides.

The Declaratory Judgment Act provides that: [i]n a case of actual controversy within its jurisdiction, . . . any court of the United States . . . may declare the rights and other legal relations of any interested party seeking such declaration, whether or not further relief is or could be sought. (See 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a)).

To determine whether an actual controversy existed, the court applied the test set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Medimmune (MedImmune, Inc. v. Genentech, Inc., 549 U.S. 118, 127 (2007)).

Briefly, the Medimmune test for whether an “actual controversy” exists is “whether the facts alleged, under all the circumstances, show that there is a substantial controversy, between parties having adverse legal interests, of sufficient immediacy and reality to warrant the issuance of a declaratory judgment.’” (Id. at 127, emphasis added).

The district court found that the production company had failed to establish the immediacy and reality of the suit by failing to demonstrate it had taken significant concrete steps toward producing or releasing its film to warrant issuance of the Declaratory Judgment.

The court found there were no facts alleged to establish immediacy of the dispute because the complaint did not contain a specific, or even an approximate, allegation about when the production company would be in film production.

The court found that the production company did not establish the reality of the controversy because the production and release of the film are contingent future events that may not occur as anticipated, or may not occur at all, since the production company had not yet retained key talent such as a director, lead actors, cinematographers, effects supervisors, producers, screenwriters etc. The court set forth that at this early stage it could not tell whether the planned film, if actually completed, would infringe any existing copyrights owned by the defendant.

Interestingly, the court found that based on the MedImmune decision, threats of legal action alone cannot create an actual controversy under the Declaratory Judgement Action, and that the plaintiff must still demonstrate that the controversy was sufficiently immediate and real. The court found the production company had failed to do so in this case.

¹The case is TEAM ANGRY FILMWORKS, INC., v. LOUISE A. GEER, et al. 2:15-cv-01381-JFC (W.D.Pa. 2016)

– by Joseph F. Murphy, Ph.D.


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