‘Straight Outta Compton’ Copyright Spat Tossed

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A federal judge has tossed a copyright lawsuit brought by the former manager of rap group N.W.A against the makers of biopic “Straight Outta Compton,” finding he made little more than passing contributions to the film’s screenplay.

(LeteciVale via Wikipedia)

“Straight Outta Compton” tells the story of the rise and fall of N.W.A., a group that emerged from the streets of the Los Angeles suburb of Compton in the mid-1980s before becoming widely influential to global hip-hop culture.

Gerald E. Heller, the co-founder of Ruthless Records who helped assemble the group, claimed in his 2015 lawsuit that material for the film was stolen from a book he wrote and from screenplays he co-wrote with defendants S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus of Xenon Pictures in May 2001.

Heller, who died in 2016, also claimed NBC Universal Media’s use of the screenplay without his consent infringed his copyright.

But the defendants moved to dismiss Heller’s third amended complaint, arguing Heller lacked standing since he didn’t show he co-owned the screenplay or that he’d made significant contributions to its creation.

U.S District Judge Michael Fitzgerald agreed and dismissed the case Dec. 21, finding Heller’s estate, substituted as the plaintiff in March 2017, didn’t do enough to show Heller shared ownership of the screenplay rights.

“Plaintiff fails to allege sufficient facts to establish that Heller is a co-author of the screenplay and the allegations establish that Universal was licensed to use the screenplay by Savidge, Wenkus, and Xenon,” Fitzgerald wrote.

Court briefs showed Heller only made proposed revisions to the screenplay.

“But this in no way establishes that Heller controlled the work,” Fitzgerald wrote, adding it is undisputed that the film is based on the screenplay. 

Fitzgerald also found the Heller estate’s contention that the dealings were done behind Heller’s back is irrelevant because “co-authors need not obtain another co-author’s consent to lawfully license the copyright to a third party.”

The judge dismissed the case without leave to amend.

In an email, the Heller estate’s attorney Brent Finch said, ” While plaintiff is disappointed that the late Gerald Heller’s contributions are not recognized by this court, the fact remains that he played a significant role in the success of this film.”  

Attorneys for the defendants did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Heller’s book about the rap group’s rise to fame, entitled Ruthless: A Memoir, was published by Simon and Schuster in 2006.

The film “Straight Outta Compton” premiered in August 2015. Heller originally sought $35 million in compensatory damages and $75 million in punitive damages, plus box office profits from the movie as restitution. The film has grossed nearly $200 million worldwide.

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