Copyright Battle Over Stephen King’s ‘Dark Tower’ Hits 11th Circuit

The traits of two fictional characters were debated before a panel of judges who are being asked to reinstate claims against one of America’s most well-known authors.  

ATLANTA (CN) — The copyright holder of a ‘70s comic book hero asked an 11th Circuit panel Thursday to revive a lawsuit accusing bestselling author Stephen King of cribbing elements of the character to create the famous gunslinger protagonist of “The Dark Tower” book series. 

Benjamin DuBay sued King and “The Dark Tower” publisher Simon & Schuster in 2017 for allegedly ripping off The Rook, a comic character created by DuBay’s uncle and two other artists in 1976. Dubay also sued Marvel Entertainment, which licensed a series of graphic novels based on “The Dark Tower,” and Sony Pictures Entertainment, which distributed the 2017 “The Dark Tower” movie. 

First appearing in a 1977 horror/fantasy comic magazine titled “Eerie, Vol. 82,” The Rook, also known as Restin Dane, is a wealthy inventor who travels through time and fights monsters. 

An attorney for DuBay told a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court Thursday that the similarities between The Rook and King’s time-traveling “The Dark Tower” protagonist, Roland Deschain, are undeniable.  

“Roland is the second coming” of The Rook, Florida attorney Robby Cook argued on behalf of DuBay, explaining that the characters are both gunslingers who are closely associated with birds and who travel through “the space-time continuum.” 

But Vincent Cox of Ballard Spahr, an attorney for the defendants, argued that King had already created many elements of the Roland Deschain character by 1977. 

According to court documents, King has said that he began developing Roland Deschain, also known as the Gunslinger, beginning in 1970. His work continued over the next three decades. The final novel in the seven-part “Dark Tower” series was published in 2004. 

Although DuBay has acknowledged that King’s manuscript for “The Dark Tower “may have predated The Rook’s publication, Cook argued Thursday that King transformed the Roland Deschain character to become more like The Rook over time. 

In a 2019 ruling in King’s favor, U.S. District Judge Harvey Schlesinger found that the similarities between Roland and The Rook start and stop with their basic classification as “adventure-seeking protagonists.” 

Unlike The Rook, King’s gunslinger is an anti-hero who makes “ethically ambiguous” choices and lives in a post-apocalyptic parallel universe where he searches for the Dark Tower, a place which serves as “the linchpin of a time and space continuum,” according to the ruling.  

Schlesinger found that the characters’ motivations and actions are dissimilar, pointing out that while The Rook is “upbeat and motivated by a desire to correct history, and make things better,” Roland is a brooding character who “kills in cold blood” and sacrifices those around him for his own benefit. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom, a Donald Trump appointee, noted the differences between the two characters in Thursday’s hearing, mentioning that The Rook is described by DuBay as “a diplomat” and a “hero” while Roland massacres children and sexually assaults a female character. 

“It seems to me that at their essences, they’re pretty different people,” Newsom said. 

Cox told the panel that DuBay is merely pointing to “the most banal elements” of the characters to draw generalized similarities and is ignoring the traits that make the characters distinctive. 

“They’re playing word games about what things are similar. For instance, the insistence that Roland is a time traveler. When you read the books, what Roland is doing is he’s going between parallel universes that are not synchronized in time. He doesn’t have a time machine as The Rook does,” Cox said. “You have to look at the specific element that makes that character who he or she is. That has to be the way that these kinds of analyses are performed.” 

Newsom was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Beverly Martin, a Barack Obama appointee, and Lisa Branch, another Trump appointee. The panel did not indicate when it would reach a decision in the case. 

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