BOSTON (CN) – The widow of bestselling author George V. Higgins says two production companies misused her late husband’s name and violated copyright in making a movie based on his 30-year-old manuscript, “The Rat on Fire.”
Loretta Cubberley sued Cambridge-based Fund for Theatre and Television (FTF) and its director Jan Egleson, and producers Robert Patton-Spruill and Patricia Moreno and their company Filmshack, in Federal Court.
Higgins, a former prosecutor, wrote a string of bestsellers from the early 1970s on, based on his knowledge of the Boston underworld, beginning with “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”
Cubberley says that “in 1979, defendant FTF sought out Higgins and asked him to write a series of ‘teleplays’ (scripts, in ordinary parlance) on the subject of arson-for-hire in Boston. Boston had at that time seen a rash of mysterious fires, especially in low-rent apartment buildings. The teleplays were to form the basis of a dramatic series on WGBH-TV, Boston’s public television station.” (Parentheses in complaint.)
Cubberley says that at the time of the commission from FTF, Higgins was already a successful author who had published six books, including “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” which had been made into a movie starring Robert Mitchum in 1973.
Higgins, a member of the California-based division of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), signed a standard writer-producer agreement with FTF, granting FTF exclusive television and movie rights to the material he was commissioned to write, the complaint states.
Cubberley says the contract “incorporated by reference the terms of the agreement that had been entered into in 1978 between the WGA and KQED, a public television station in San Francisco. According to Cubberley’s information and belief, it was Higgins who insisted on incorporating the terms of the KQED/WGA agreement into his agreement with FTF, in order to secure for himself the protections of that agreement.”
After FTF made an initial payment of $15,000, Higgins delivered to FTF a book manuscript, “The Rat on Fire,” the complaint states.
Cubberley says the title was inspired by “the practice of some professional arsonists to start fires by dousing rats with gasoline, setting them alight, and inserting them into the walls of buildings.”
The complaint continues: “Although the manuscript ‘The Rat on Fire’ was not the series of ‘teleplays’ that FTF had commissioned, it contained plot, characters, and dialogue that could easily be adapted into teleplays. FTF never insisted on return of the payment it had made to Higgins and never made any of the additional payments called for in the contract.
“Shortly after delivery of the manuscript to FTF, Higgins exercised his retained publication rights by arranging for the book, ‘The Rat on Fire,’ to be published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. The book, which differed only in a few very minor respects from the manuscript submitted to FTF, came out in 1981.”
Cubberley says FTF shelved Higgins’ manuscript for more than 30 years “because WGBH found the material in the manuscript inappropriate for public television.”
Quoting an interview with her husband, she says Higgins told the interviewer that his book “managed to off-foot or offend every group, whether majority or minority, involved in the activities in the story. … [PBS] reacted with predictable hostility and it was never made into the docu-drama that they anticipated.” (Brackets in complaint.)
She adds: “Because FTF never made any television program or other work based on Higgins’ manuscript, the rights that Higgins had conveyed to FTF – the exclusive television and motion picture rights – reverted to Higgins three years after delivery of the manuscript to FTF.”
After Higgins died in 1999, Cubberley tried to option the movie rights to several of his novels, she says. In 2010, she sold movie rights to “Cogan’s Trade” to director Andrew Dominik. That movie “is currently in production, starring Brad Pitt, among others,” the complaint states. “The fact that Brad Pitt, currently one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood, was making a movie of ‘Cogan’s Trade’ became known in the movie industry at least as early as November 2010.
“Evidently inspired by the sudden commercial value of Higgins’ novels, defendant FTF and its president, defendant Egleson, decided to dust off the manuscript of ‘The Rat on Fire’ that they had relegated to their attic or basement over 30 years ago. In collaboration with defendants Moreno and Patton-Spruill, they began work on a motion picture based on ‘The Rat on Fire,'” according to the complaint.
Cubberley says the defendants created two websites that misused Higgins’ name and the title of his work to promote their movie.
She wants them permanently enjoined from using Higgins’ name and the title of the novel, and from making a movie based on “The Rat on Fire.” And she wants an accounting and damages for copyright and trademark infringement.
She is represented by William Strong with Kotin, Crabtree & Strong.