The endless injustice of firms with big budgets for lawyers

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Major studio shuts down a student’s film project:

I figured that the number I was given was just another publishing associate, so I dialed with thinly veiled skepticism. To my surprise, the voice that answered was a feeble, elderly woman. I struggled through my initial shock to explain that I was a student; I wanted to use her husband’s story as a basis for my project, and could I get her permission. She said that it sounded like fun, and gave me the number of the estate attorney, so I could get a written form that gave me the go-ahead. I called, I got permission, and they faxed the form to my professor’s office.
It’s important to note that the film was based on one of Asimov’s short stories, “Reason”, but was not a direct interpretation. It was not titled “I, Robot”, and barring the inclusion of the laws of robotics, was almost wholly original.
2 weeks later, 30 people showed up to help build sets, sew costumes, and make a little bit of history. Sadly, I let them all down.
In our last week of shooting, 3 months after I received written consent to use the short story, one of the crew brought in a copy of Variety, which mentioned that a major studio purchased the book rights to I, Robot, and planned to make a film. Initially, I thought, “Awesome – free promotion!” Alas, that’s not what was looming on the horizon.
Part of the project was to make posters, trailers, and a website for the film. We even went so far as to create our own production company, as to look professional. Somehow the legal team from the studio found out about a student project, in a small private college in the Midwest, with no budget, being shot in a warehouse basement, and decided to issue a cease and desist order. Basically, what that means, is that the studio’s lawyers said to us, “You’re using our property. Stop, or we’ll sue you into the stone age.” I responded by sending them the consent form from the Asimov estate, and explained that it was a student project, not a commercial venture worth litigating. I turned over our script, our shooting notes, our shot list, copies of our tapes and even the concept art drawings.
Instead of the letter recognizing our valiant efforts as students that I expected, I found myself on the tail end of a phone call that changed my life. I was contacted directly by the lead of the studio’s legal team, who explained my situation to me very clearly. He told me that I was technically in my legal right to use Isaac Asimov’s material. However, if I chose to proceed, they would file multiple lawsuits totaling over 2 million dollars against me. In the end, I might win, but it would take hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees just to fight it, but would cost them nothing more than the salaries they already pay their lawyers. It would be 10 years before any type of verdict could be levied, and by then it wouldn’t matter what the outcome was, since their film would be long since released.
I was 22. I was working 2 jobs, making about $9 an hour, in addition to attending school. I had taken out every student loan I could get to finance my film, which totaled about $10,000 in debt. I had spent my last dollar to buy breakfast for the crew on the last day of shooting. I was properly fucked. I caved.
In the end, my professors had sympathy on me. They had visited the set, seen the dailies, and recognized my talent and dedication. I graduated with honors, without ever turning in a senior thesis project. I guess that they assumed I had learned the most valuable of all life lessons.
Looking back, I can recognize that the lawyers were only doing their job; I was only worth a couple of hours of an intern’s time, and a 10 minute phone call. To me, they completely pulled the rug out from underneath the career that I’d been trying to carve out for myself. Without a thesis project, I wasn’t equipped to apply to grad schools, and by the time I’d recuperated from the costs I’d incurred, I’d already been forced to accept a different career path, and rearranged my life to fit. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a fairly successful career designing web sites for major entities, and I make a decent living. I was willing to pick up and start over, but I can’t help but harbor resentment for having my wings clipped so early, and so unjustly.

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