Monday, June 30, 2008

Don't Show, Don't Tell

The ongoing legal dispute between veteran writers/actors and former friends, Laura Kightlinger and Mike White illustrates beautifully the cutthroat world of screenwriting and the movie industry, itself.

According to the lawsuit filed by Kightlinger, as well as various interviews and other communications from the two, Kightlinger claims she wrote a screenplay in 2002 which she showed to Mike White, who then wrote his own version of it. Of course, White denies this, noting the differences between the two projects.

The main one being that White's project got made.

Kightlinger - veteran sit-com writer, actress, and SNL amuna - apparently wrote a screenplay about cat rescue and showed it to Mike White - veteran screenwriter and actor - as the two were mutual friends of one Jack Black (yes: Jack Black and Mike White). Both Kightlinger and White agree the latter liked her script and offered to play a role in it, should it be greenlighted. That is where the stories diverge.

Kightlinger claims White then 'stabbed her in the back' by rewriting her script with a few minor changes. For one, White's script is about dogs, and... well, that's about it. Legal analysts and experts note that Kightlinger faces "significant legal hurdles" and one source representative of White notes that the scripts vary in tone, texture, approach, and characters, but according to everything I've been able to uncover on the matter (which isn't much), it seems like Kightlinger may have a good argument.

But probably not a good case.

The simple fact of the matter is that Hollywood is a cutthroat town filled with... cutthroats. Whether or not White cannibalized Laura Kightlinger's script is ponderous, but I find his claims of total innocence disingenuous; it seems obvious that he was at least "inspired" by her original screenplay. Still, the legal standard for plagiarism is quite a hurdle, and I don't know if this case meets the mark.

Truth be told - especially as a musician - I cannot authoritatively say I have ever had a completely original idea and I can accept that of myself. I don't know that it makes me a bad artist so much as a derivative one, but that's oversimplifying; the truth is that I surround myself with, and immerse myself in, entertainment and source material and, for whatever reason, often come to similar conclusions others usually have before me. The truth is that there are no truly original ideas - the Beatles said as much and they were paraphrasing from The Holy Bible - the real matter of the work is the approach: the content is secondary to the work.

With that said, changing a few key elements is far from a novel approach; while I am not pointing fingers, changing just enough of someone else's work is the classic way of protecting one's self from lawsuits like this one - we all did it for at least three reports in highschool! But again, there have been a lot of riffs I wrote (when riffs were what I wrote) that I knew were "derivative" - in some cases, intentionally so ("We need to go into something chunky here - like a Bad Brains-meets-Misfits thing") but thought were original... until I popped-in an album I hadn't listened to for several years and heard that very riff blaring back at me!

It happens.

In a perfect world, White would settle out of court and the DVD release of Year of the Dog would grant Kightlinger a co-credit, but the movie (which coincidentally stars another SNL alumna, Molly Shannon) has yet to break $2 million, even with good reviews. In a perfect world, Kightlinger would be fine with this and would forego all but the most basic of monetary compensation for the sake of their friendship. But this is not a perfect world and neither seems likely.

To his credit, I hope Mike White is fighting the good fight because he truly doesn't believe he co-opted her script, but I can't help feeling he's afraid of simply admitting he rewrote a script he'd read years earlier without fully realizing it. To her credit, I hope Laura Kightlinger is not doing this just for publicity, as White suggests - something else I find hard to believe, as it's not like Kightlinger's career is exactly flagging.

© C Harris Lynn, 2008
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