We’re aiming for new heights of nerdom here at Litigation & Trial, combining comic books, movies, old law school contract cases, equitable principles, permanent injunctions, and recent circuit splits in one post. The Watchmen lawsuit — which is less copyright infringement and more commercial litigation, since the dispute is largely over contract terms — gives us license (har har) to do so.
Graphic novels (née “comic books”) are serious money these days, at least when adapted for the big screen. In addition to the normal superhero adaptations, like Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk (which have generally done quite well), particular attention has been paid to noir comics like Sin City and 300. (The Nolans’ Batman adaptations are a hybrid, drawing from noir variations on Batman, like The Dark Knight Returns.)
Watchmen, published in 1986-87, is perhaps the most heralded of the noir comics, a complex and character-driven drama set in a alternative-history 1980s United States in which superheroes (the bulk of which have no obvious superpower) have been suppressed as unaccountable vigilantes, while Nixon is on his fifth term as president.
Such a complicated tale obviously presents numerous visual, thematic and temporal problems for moviemakers, in addition to normal stress of taking a work revered by a subculture and making it widely appealing without offending the subculture or alienating the masses. Multiple attempts to make the movie since the story was published have fizzled out; even Terry Gilliam, who has no trouble bringing madness to the big screen, deemed it unfilmable.
But Zack Snyder, who directed the enormously successful 300 (which made $450 million on a $60 million budget), has apparently done it and done it well.
Since he’s appearing on this blog, you can guess what happened next: the production company, Warner Brothers, was sued.
The movie buzz is that the case has substantial merit and could turn the movie into a loss for WB, and the original documents are available online for your perusal. In essence, Fox bought the complete rights to Watchmen, tried to begin production, gave up, quitclaimed the rights to the producer (with the terms of that quitclaim disputed), then entered into multiple disputed subsequent agreements. Here’s the Court’s outline (as formatted by Deadline Hollywood):
1986-90: Fox acquires motion picture rights in The Watchmen.
1990: Fox enters into a domestic distribution agreement with Largo Entertainment, a joint venture of JVC Entertainment Inc., Golar (Larry Gordon), and BOH, Inc. The “Largo Agreement” established Fox’s domestic distribution rights, through a license from Largo, in “subject pictures” as defined in the agreement.
June 1991: Fox enters into a “Quitclaim Agreement” with Largo International, through which Fox “quitclaims to Purchaser all of Fox’s right, title and interest in and to the Motion Picture project presently entitled Watchmen, which included specifically described literary materials. Notably, the agreement provides that, “if Purchaser elects to proceed to production, the Picture shall be produced by Purchaser and shall be distributed by Fox as a Subject Picture pursuant to the terms of the Largo Agreement …” In consideration for the rights to Watchmen, Fox was to be reimbursed for its development costs ($435,600) plus interest plus a profit participation in the worldwide net proceeds of any Watchmen picture.
Nov. 1991: The Largo Agreement was amended; Watchmen was listed as a project quitclaimed to Largo.
Nov. 1993: Larry Gordon, through Golar, withdraws from the Largo Entertainment joint venture; Largo conveys any rights it has in Watchmen to Gordon/Golar. Based on the 1991 quitclaim, the Court may infer that Gordon now stood in the shoes of Largo with respect to Watchmen and held whatever rights it acquired through the 1991 Quitclaim, which left Fox with the distribution rights it retained through that agreement.
1994: Fox negotiated a “Settlement and Release” agreement with Gordon which contemplated that the Watchmen project would be put in “perpetual turnaround” to Lawrence Gordon Productions, Inc. The “turnaround notice” gave Lawrence Gordon Productions “the perpetual right . . . to acquire all of the right, title and interest of Fox [Watchmen] pursuant to the terms and conditions herein provided.” The turnaround notice then described the formula for determining the buy-out price in the event that Gordon elected to acquire Fox’s interest. Thus, the document suggests that Gordon acquired an option to acquire Fox’s interest in Watchmen for a price. In fact, the notice obligated Gordon to pay the buy-out price on the commencement of any production of a Watchmen film. The notice also provided that the agreement was personal to Gordon and that, “prior to payment of the Buy-Out Price,” he could not assign rights or authorize any person to take any action with respect to the project.
(emphasis mine) WB now argues the full rights were quitclaimed multiple times; Fox claims they granted an option the producer failed to exercise, so the rights are still their’s. A court last week denied WB’s motion to dismiss. Variety summarizes:
At the heart of Fox’s suit, filed in February, is the contention that it never ceded rights to the property. And according to the federal Judge Gary Allen Feess, Fox retained distribution rights to the graphic novel penned by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons through a 1991 claim. Furthermore, Feess appears to agree that under a 1994 turnaround deal with producer Larry Gordon, Gordon acquired an option to acquire Fox’s remaining interest in “Watchmen,” which was never exercised, thereby leaving Fox with its rights under the 1994 agreement.
Frankly, I agree with the Court’s ruling (denying the motion to dismiss) but not the reasoning, which I’ll get to below. For now, it’s a motion to dismiss: all disputed facts and ambiguities are resolved in the plaintiff’s favor and all reasonable inferences are made in the plaintiff’s favor. The meaning could be as Fox alleges, but that’ll require some testimony and extrinsic evidence.
But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about the remedy requested in paragraph 30 of Fox’s complaint:
Fox is entitled to preliminary and permanent injunctive relief enjoining and preventing Defendants, their agents’ and employees, and all persons acting in concert or participation with Defendants, from having, copying, distributing, displaying or making any other unauthorized use of The Watchmen in a manner inconsistent with Fox’s rights as detailed herein.
As a practical matter, I can assure all graphic novel fans that no one wants to stop or even delay this movie. Fox doesn’t want to scrap the picture, they want as big a piece as they can get, and they want the injunction for leverage. We’re watching a negotiation-by-litigation.
Yet, as a legal matter, if they prevail, they can halt distribution entirely.
But, you say, recalling first year contract law, wouldn’t that be a tremendous waste of money, the type of economic destruction generally discouraged by a long line of post-formalist, legal realism cases, like Jacob & Youngs v Kent, 230 NY 239; 129 NE 889 (N.Y. 1921, Cardozo, J.)(denying specific performance where home contractor used wrong brand of plumbing pipes)? Yes, but that’s the choice you made through your elected representatives and the copyright laws they have enacted.
So how can the law allow Fox to sit by while WB (and their producers, directors, actors, etc) pours their sweat, tears and money into a work, just to later bring a lawsuit requesting not a cut of the profits but total destruction of the work?
It may not sit by. The doctrine of laches was created to thwart people to squat on their rights, lie in wait, and choose not to sue until it will most damage and prejudice the other party.
The doctrine of laches is a judicial escape hatch enabling courts to dismiss or limit lawsuits that, though brought within the statute of limitations, would be inequitable to permit because of the conduct of the party bringing the lawsuit. It’s closely related to the doctrine of unclean hands, a similar tool courts use to deny equitable remedies to those who have behaved badly in the context of the dispute.
Since the doctrine of laches has its roots back in the English common law, the elements in all 50 states are roughly the same, so we might as well look to Pennsylvania:
Laches bars relief when the plaintiff’s lack of due diligence in failing to timely institute an action results in prejudice to another. Because it is an affirmative defense, the burden of proof is on the defendant or respondent to demonstrate unreasonable delay and prejudice. See Weinberg v. State Bd. of Exam’rs. of Pub. Accountants, 509 Pa. 143, 147, 501 A.2d 239, 242 (1985). Thus, “[t]he party asserting laches as a defense must present evidence demonstrating prejudice from a lapse of time . . . [such as] that a witness has died or become unavailable, that substantiating records were lost, or that the defendant has changed [her] position in anticipation the opposing party has waived his claims.” Richard, 561 Pa. at 496, 751 A.2d at 651. Furthermore, “[t]he question of laches is factual and is determined by examining the circumstances of each case.” Weinberg, 509 Pa. at 148, 501 A.2d at 242 (quoting Leedom v. Thomas, 473 Pa. 193, 200-01, 373 A.2d 1329, 1332 (1977)).
Commonwealth ex rel. Corbett v. Griffin, 946 A.2d 668, 676-677 (Pa. 2008). Like most equitable doctrines, it has essentially no elements: the court finds it or it does not.
Obviously, such equitable powers apply to common law claims. Can it apply to statutory claims like copyright infringement?
In most circuits, yes. The Eleventh Circuit just grappled with that in Peter Letterese & Assocs. v. World Inst. of Scientology Enterprises et al, 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 14496; Copy. L. Rep. (CCH) P29,589 (July 8, 2008). They unearthed a fantastic Learned Hand quote:
It must be obvious to every one familiar with equitable principles that it is inequitable for the owner of a copyright, with full notice of an intended infringement, to stand inactive while the proposed infringer spends large sums of money in its exploitation, and to intervene only when his speculation has proved a success. Delay under such circumstances allows the owner to speculate without risk with the other’s money; he cannot possibly lose, and he may win.
That describes Fox’s conduct precisely: they couldn’t make it, so they waited for someone else to get it together then filed suit after WB tests Synder and crew out on 300, figures out a plausible script, puts together a cast and crew, films it, and makes its way through a good deal of post-production. But that was before there was an explicit 3-year federal statute of limitations for copyright claims. What now? The Eleventh Circuit sums up other responses:
In answering the question of whether the defense of laches may be interposed in a copyright infringement suit, therefore, we cannot agree with the conclusion of the Fourth Circuit, which is an unqualified “no.” See Lyons P’ship, L.P. v. Morris Costumes, Inc., 243 F.3d 789, 798 (4th Cir. 2001). Prather recognized the applicability of general equitable doctrines, and like tolling, laches falls into that category. Cf. Teamsters & Employers Welfare Trust of Ill. v. Gorman Bros. Ready Mix, 283 F.3d 877, 882 (7th Cir. 2002) (“What is sauce for the goose (the plaintiff seeking to extend the statute of limitations) is sauce for the gander (the defendant seeking to contract it).”). However, we remain mindful of the Fourth Circuit’s invocation of separation of powers principles which counsel against the use of “the judicially created doctrine of laches to bar a federal statutory claim that has been timely filed under an express statute of limitations.” Lyons P’ship, 243 F.3d at 798. We therefore answer this question with a presumptive “no”; there is a strong presumption that a plaintiff’s suit is timely if it is filed before the statute of limitations has run. Only in the most extraordinary circumstances will laches be recognized as a defense. Cf. Chirco v. Crosswinds Communities, Inc., 474 F.3d 227, 234 (6th Cir. 2007) (noting the limited applicability of laches to copyright cases in “what can best be described as unusual circumstances”); Jacobsen v. Deseret Book Co., 287 F.3d 936, 951 (10th Cir. 2002) (“Although it is possible, in rare cases, that a statute of limitations can be cut short by the doctrine of laches, we see no reason to supplant the statute of limitations in this case.” (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)).
But we’re not yet done:
Even where such extraordinary circumstances exist, however, laches serves as a bar only to the recovery of retrospective damages, not to prospective relief. As the former Fifth Circuit explained in a patent infringement action:
Although laches and estoppel are related concepts, there is a clear distinction between the two. The defense of laches may be invoked where the plaintiff has unreasonably and inexcusably delayed in prosecuting its rights and where that delay has resulted in material prejudice to the defendant. The effect of laches is merely to withhold damages for infringement which occurred prior to the filing of the suit.
Estoppel, on the other hand, “arises only when one has so acted as to mislead another and the one thus misled has relied upon the action of the inducing party to his prejudice.” Estoppel forecloses the patentee from enforcing his patent prospectively through an injunction or through damages for continuing infringement.
Studiengesellschaft Kohle mbH v. Eastman Kodak Co., 616 F.2d 1315, 1325 (5th Cir. 1980) (internal citations omitted).
Arguably, the big damages here have yet to occur, and will occur when the film is distributed for hundreds of millions of dollars. But I still don’t understand why WB didn’t raise laches as an affirmative defense in their Answer to Fox’s Complaint. There’s a legitimate argument that the real infringement damages occured during scripting, casting, filming, and post-production, where Fox was shut out of the creative process it presumably wanted to control.
Moreover, the quitclaim agreement itself (the source of most of Fox’s claimed rights) includes a clause where, if the movie is ever made, Fox is entitled to the money it initially spent (at least half a million, circa 1990) plus interest. That’s serious money by now, at least enough to warrant adding one line about laches to your Answer and briefing the issue.
THE POINT (other than to learn):
There’s been a lot of hoopla about this sentence in the judge’s order:
It is particularly noteworthy that nothing on the face of the complaint or the documents supplied to the Court establishes that Gordon, the claimed source of Warner Brothers’ interest in ‘Watchmen,’ ever acquired any rights in ‘Watchmen.’
That’s a problem, but it’s not the end of the road. Let’s presume Fox still legally has the rights to Watchmen. Now what? Do they get an injunction?
As the Eleventh Circuit continued,
Rather, under “well-established principles of equity, a plaintiff seeking a permanent injunction must satisfy a four-factor test before a court may grant such relief,” and a court’s decision to grant or deny such relief is within the exercise of its discretion. [eBay Inc. v. MercExchange, L.L.C., 547 U.S. 388, 391, 126 S. Ct. 1837, 1839 (2006)]
A plaintiff must demonstrate: (1) that it has suffered an irreparable injury; (2) that remedies available at law, such as monetary damages, are inadequate to compensate for that injury; (3) that, considering the balance of hardships between the plaintiff and defendant, a remedy in equity is warranted; and (4) that the public interest would not be disserved by a permanent injunction.
Even if laches doesn’t directly apply, and even though “irreparable injury” is presumed in copyright cases, Fox may have waived its “irreparable injury” by allowing virtually all of Watchmen to be completed (excepting some post-production) before filing suit in February 2008. Fox did exactly what Learned Hand complained about: waiting for WB to finish what Fox could not, then suing when they got wind that it was good.
They’re no longer in it for protection of their creative endeavor; they’re in it just for the money. That won’t do. WB’s goal is to show that to the judge.
But I think Fox has a bigger problem: the 1994 agreement. Under that, the last of all agreements with Fox, Gordon (the producer) has a perpetual right to exercise his option to make the film. Fox’s complaint mentions the 1994 agreement but does not claim breach of it, just breach of the 1991 quitclaim, which means Gordon (now WB) can still exercise the option, buying out the rights.
And that raises yet another problem for Fox when they then try to claim their due under the 1994 option: laches, which can completely bar a contract claim, not just pre-suit damages. When did Fox first know Gordon was trying to make the movie? Recall from the Court’s outline, “The notice also provided that the agreement was personal to Gordon and that, “prior to payment of the Buy-Out Price,” he could not “assign rights or authorize any person to take any action with respect to the project.”
Here’s a 2001 article about an attempt, long after the relevant agreements with Fox. Did Fox move to protect its rights then? Did it tell Gordon not to “authorize any person to take any action with respect to the project?” Here’s a rumor:
[P]rivately, Warner Bros execs are decrying to me what they say is Fox’s “opportunistic claim,” noting that “Fox sat on its so-called rights for years while other studios in town developed this property. In fact, Paramount greenlit the movie for production and Fox never said a word! Fox even had an opportunity to re-acquire the project at some point and it passed on it!”
Did Fox try to “speculate without risk with the other’s money?”
I’d say “we shall see,” but we probably won’t. Once the injunction and the option are decided, the case will likely be sufficiently narrowed to be settled easily; the spread won’t be worth the risk anymore.
UPDATE: On December 24, 2008, District Judge Gary A. Feess issued a brief ruling holding “Fox owns a copyright interest consisting of, at the very least, the right to distribute the Watchmen motion picture,” with a promise to issue a more definite ruling soon. It’s hard to say what the practical effect is of such a holding (it’s obviously not good news for WB); I still believe an injunction is unlikely. I’ll write more when the full order comes out.