Sunday 24 March 2013

Emma Thompson's Effie Gray script is clear of second claim

Effie Gray
(Thomas Richmond 1802-1874)
A New York federal court has decided that a screenplay by actor Emma Thompson, a fictional work based on historical facts, was not a copy of an earlier work. The case, which was decided by Judge Thomas Griesa, a U.S. District Judge with the Southern District of New York, revolved around a screenplay, "Effie," by the Academy Award-winning actor. 

Effie is based on the romantic life of Euphemia "Effie" Gray, who was married first to Victorian-era art critic John Ruskin and then John Everett Millais, a painter and founder of the pre-Raphaelite art movement who had painted her. The annulment of her first marriage to Ruskin, which was never consummated by Ruskin, caused a scandal at the time. Gregory Murphy, an author, claimed that the Effie screenplay infringed on a copyright for a screenplay that he had written, also about Gray's love life, based on his West End play "The Countess" and his claim is perhaps best summed up in a 2011 article in the Daily Mail titled "The Day I Sat in Emma Thompson's Kitchen and Accused Her of Stealing my Movie".  Murphy is sure his screenplay was sent to Thompson and her husband through a mutual friend, and by the casting director of his play.

Murphy had said that he felt Thompson;s screenplay was "distinctly related to my screenplay in its time-frame, character development, structure and tone". Rather than wait for Murphy to file a lawsuit, Effie Film LLC, which was producing Thompson's movie, pre-emptively sought a declaratory judgment in 2011 from the court in Manhattan against Murphy, not least as the film was at a critical stage in the funding process. Effie Film then moved for a judgment on pleadings last May.
Effie Gray by Millais
In a 42 page decision Judge Griesa granted Effie Film's motion for judgment on the pleadings after a lengthy review of both screenplays saying "The two works have no dialogue in common, no characters in common that are not historical figures, and though they contain the same settings, the two screenplays give these episodes vastly different levels of attention". Judge Griesa acknowleded "The works contained some similarities apart from the shared historical background, including a young manservant infatuated with Effie and a common theme of "the idealization of women and a denial of their humanity" but when on to say that the test in his decision was whether the works were "substantially similar" in their total concept, and by that standard Murphy's allegations fell short. Judge Griesa concluded that the two works have "greatly differing internal structures", and are "quite dissimilar in their two approaches to fictionalising the same historical events" 

Mr Murphy responded to the decision saying "we are reviewing all options, and our first will be to request a copy of the finished film" . Thompson's movie is in post-production and stars Dakota Fanning as Effie Gray, Tom Sturridge as Millais, and Thompson as Effie's supporter, Lady Eastlake.

Last year, District Judge Paul Oetken, also in the Southern District of New York, ruled that Thompson's screenplay did not infringe a copyright on another screenplay about the same love triangle by author Eve Pomerance. 

"We are pleased that Judge Griesa's decision confirms that copyright does not protect history and every author is free to draw from the historical record" Thompson's lawyer Andrew Deutsch (DLA Piper) said in a statement 

Effie Film LLC v. Murphy, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 11-00783.

1 comment:

Andy J said...

I think this is a helpful judgment as it helps to define the always difficult divide between the idea and the expression. Clearly Mr Murphy feels that the overall idea that he has produced several scripted versions of the 'Effie' story gives him a sort of monopoly in this area. As the court found (judgment in pdf form available here) none of the dialogue and none of the fictional characters wwere the same and barring two instances there were no plot similarities outside the factual historical record.
One apsect about the case that Ben didn't cover, and one that clearly annoys Mr Murphy, is the fact that the plaintiffs (Effie Film) were allowed to amend their pleading by submitting the actual shooting script for the film, rather than the treatment script on which it appears Mr Murphy had been basing his earlier remarks in the Daily Mail. The court's reasoning on accepting the amended pleading can be found here