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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Judge May Moor ‘Pirates’ Action in California

MANHATTAN (CN) - A multibillion-dollar copyright dispute over the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie franchise belongs in California, the Walt Disney Co. told a federal judge.

Since 2003, the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies have generated billions of dollars worldwide in box office and licensing revenues. "Top Gun" producer Jerry Bruckheimer produced the "Pirates" series, with Johnny Depp at the helm of the all-star cast. Disney, which distributed the movies, points to a pre-existing theme-park ride as their inspiration.

After the first movie in the series came out in 2003, Florida screenwriter Royce Mathew accused Disney of having profited off the supernatural stories, fictional characters, plots and themes he had developed in the 1980s.

Mathew said he had written several stories and screenplay drafts, which he later turned into an independent movie featuring characters and story elements similar to the ones in Disney's "Pirates" movies.

Disney received copies of Mathew's copyrighted works after he designed a video game based on his movie in the 1990s, court filings show. Mathew said the media conglomerate then used his ideas, characters and storylines to create its "Pirates" movies, and credited its employees and affiliates with coming up with them.

Though Mathew had filed the 2005 federal complaint against Disney in Orlando without a lawyer, he retained a Florida law firm after his attempts to settle with Disney failed.

Mathew dropped the Orlando lawsuit before the court issued any rulings, and his attorneys filed a second lawsuit in California that settled in 2007.

Disney had claimed that it had "independently created" similar characters and story lines based on the artwork for one of its theme parks in Orlando. The company pointed to a book featuring one of the scenes that purportedly had inspired the distinctive "Pirates" characters as evidence for its claim. Supernatural story elements, such as a curse that causes pirates to become living skeletons under the moonlight, were primarily based on theme-park artwork a Disney artist had designed before Mathew's copyrighted works existed, Disney said.

Mathew and Disney agreed to release all claims against each other stemming from the "Pirates" movies up to that point.

Then in 2009, Disney published a book that featured the same scene Disney had relied on in the settlement, by a different author. Mathew said there were serious discrepancies between the newly published scene and what Disney had represented in 2006 as the artwork to support its independent creation position.

Disney allegedly ignored Mathew's demands for an explanation, leading him to file a new copyright-infringement action in Orlando.

When the court dismissed the case before ruling on the merits, Mathew brought his claims to Manhattan, arguing that Disney had continued to infringe his copyrights after settling the previous dispute in 2007. He also asked for rescission of the allegedly fraudulent settlement agreement.

Last month U.S. District Judge John Koeltl granted Disney's request to transfer the lawsuit to California, the state of its headquarters. Disney claimed that Mathew had agreed in the 2007 release that any dispute related to the "Pirates" movies would be decided in California. It also argued the New York court was an improper venue as to the individual defendants, which include "Pirates" screenwriters and producers.

Mathew failed to show that the forum-selection clause in the release did not cover post-settlement claims, according to the ruling.

There is no reason to decide if the settlement bars Mathew's new claims as long as they are "arising out of or relating to" the release, Koeltl said at a March 14 hearing.

Recent Supreme Court precedent lets Disney seek a transfer even though the request had not showed up in previous filings, the judge concluded.

Koeltl stayed the transfer pending a decision on Mathew's motion for reconsideration, which Mathew filed on March 28.

Citing 2nd Circuit precedent, Mathew argued that a contractual forum-selection clause does not apply to lawsuits like his, in which the defendant asserts that noncontractual, statutory copyright infringement claims are barred based on a contract defense. What's more, he claimed, a disputed forum-selection clause cannot be enforced because the court determined that an ambiguity exists as to whether the parties intended the agreement to cover post-settlement claims.

Mathew wants an evidentiary hearing to determine the parties' intended scope for the release.

Calling Mathew's motion for reconsideration a "futile attempt to forestall transfer," Disney countered on April 4 that Mathew had cited unrelated precedent. It said the parties did not need to engage in costly discovery to determine the meaning of an unambiguous forum-selection clause.

Mathew's response to Disney's opposition is due Friday.

"Royce Mathew looks forward to vindicating his rights on his creations in the courts," Michael Wolk, Mathew's New York-based attorney, told Courthouse News.

After a federal judge dismissed Mathew's most recent lawsuit in Orlando without giving him a chance to file any briefs, Mathew decided it was important to pursue his claims in a court where Disney did not have a theme park, his attorney added.

Attorneys for Disney declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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