Plagiarism claims are nothing new in Hollywood, but the lawsuit over the movie "Amistad" is drawing special notice.
It pits a little-known but acclaimed novelist against one of the titans of Hollywood, director Steven Spielberg.
Moreover, the legal battle by author Barbara Chase-Riboud is being waged by Pierce O'Donnell, who represented Art Buchwald in his successful suit against Paramount Pictures for stealing his idea for the hit film, "Coming to America."
Representing Spielberg is Bert Fields, one of Hollywood's most visible and successful attorneys.
"Plagiarism is a cancer on Hollywood," said O'Donnell at his downtown law office.
"The suit," responds Fields, "is utter rot."
Chase-Riboud claims the $75 million film about mutiny aboard a black slave ship is based on her 1989 historical novel "Echo of the Lions." Spielberg, in court papers, has denied the charges and calls "Amistad," "an extraordinarily important film, perhaps the most important of my career."
In addition to seeking $10 million in damages, Chase-Riboud is seeking to block the scheduled release of the film Wednesday. O'Donnell doubts that his motion for a preliminary injunction will succeed "it's a $75 million movie and a Steven Spielberg movie" but said part of his strategy is to expose what he calls Hollywood's arrogance.
"Hollywood is a place where might makes right and the powerful get away with murder, and it takes a law firm like mine and a writer like Barbara and Art Buchwald to make a statement," O'Donnell said.
"My client doesn't want to enjoin the movie, but we have to up the profile of the case so the world knows something about this," he said. "It's the only power I have against a Hollywood studio and a Hollywood icon. This is the first inning of a nine-inning game."
Actually, it's a pretty old game. Each week, O'Donnell said he is asked to take on cases by authors who believe a producer or screenwriter stole their work. But he said Chase-Riboud is the first plagarism suit he has filed since the 1988 Buchwald suit against Paramount.
No matter how successful, most clients can't afford the gigantic fees that could result from a protracted suit against a Hollywood player. And studios have deep pockets, especially because they carry insurance against such suits.
"Plagiarism is easy to do and almost impossible to prove," O'Donnell said. "But it is not a victimless crime. It is a blight on the creative process."
Spielberg's production company acknowledges it had access to Chase-Riboud's novel. Indeed, nine years ago, the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who edited Chase-Riboud's previous historical novel, "Sally Hemings" at Viking, sent "Echo of Lions" to Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment with the thought that it might make a good film. Amblin executives met with Chase-Riboud, but the project was ultimately rejected.
"Echo of Lions," however, was optioned by Punch Productions Inc. The writer assigned to the film was David Franzoni. Nothing ever came of the option, but Chase-Riboud claims in her suit that Franzoni "pitched the project to several major studios." Franzoni later became the screenwriter of record on Amistad.
O'Donnell maintained that extensive parts of the film were cribbed from his client's novel, such as one of the main characters, a free black played in the film by Morgan Freeman. In addition, he said, Chase-Riboud created a personal relationship between Joseph Cinque, the slave leader, and John Quincy Adams. Historically, the two men barely met.
Fields disputes all the allegations, saying that Franzoni never read "Echo of Lions" and that nothing was taken from the book.
Indeed, DreamWorks SKG, which is releasing the film, alleges in court papers that Chase-Riboud ripped off "Black Mutiny," a 1953 book about the Amistad uprising that was optioned by actress Debbie Allen, who obtained the rights to the book in 1984.
She subsequently made a deal with Spielberg in 1994 and assigned the book rights to DreamWorks.
Fields maintains there are 88 similarities between "Black Mutiny" and Chase-Riboud's novel.
"It's a damnable lie," O'Donnell said. "But desperate defendants do desperate things." He maintained that the similarities were based on the historical record and that such facts cannot be copyrighted.
Fields said plagiarism is indeed a problem in Hollywood just not in this instance. "I am not advocating theft," he said. "But there was no theft in this case."
He said many writers, upon seeing a film, honestly believe they were the victims of plagiarism.
"Very often they have written a scene and they believe it was theirs," he said. "But when you create, often two minds hit on something independently."
O'Donnell's advice to writers: Be careful.
"You have to have a heightened concern about your material," he said. "It is healthy to be a little paranoid. There are thousands of people who say they are producers and you know what a producer is? He can be a guy with a cell phone and a briefcase."
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.