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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Victorian Love Triangle Can Be Thrice Told

MANHATTAN (CN) - Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson's dramatization of scandalous love affairs in the Victorian art world does not violate two similar screenplays, a federal judge ruled.

U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken's lengthy ruling begins with an overview of the art, the history and the era.

"Victorian England, famed for its cultural achievements, high political drama, and sexual mores, remains a rich source of inspiration for historians and artists," the order states. "For generations, authors, composers, dramatists, and scholars have been drawn to the story at the heart of this case - a story that involves two major figures of the Victorian art world, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais, and a woman, Euphemia Gray, who married Millais after annulling her notoriously unhappy marriage to Ruskin on the scandalous ground of non-consummation."

Prior works on the subject include Suzanne Cooper's nonfiction book "Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais;" David Lang's opera "Modern Painters;" Eva McDonald's novel "John Ruskin's Wife;" and Van Dyke Brooke's silent film "The Love of John Ruskin," according to the ruling.

"Eve Pomerance and Emma Thompson have both contributed to the corpus of works about the Ruskin-Gray-Millais affair," Oetken added. "Pomerance authored and copyrighted two screenplays: 'The King of the Golden River' ('King') and 'The Secret Trials of Effie Gray' ('Trials'). Thompson later authored a screenplay, entitled 'Effie,' and registered it with the United States Copyright Office. Thompson subsequently assigned to Effie Film, LLC ('Effie Film') exclusive ownership of her copyright in Effie and all rights in the screenplay, including the right to produce a motion picture on the basis of the screenplay and to seek declarations that the screenplay (or any film based on it) does not infringe on others' copyrights. A film based on the screenplay, starring Dakota Fanning, Robbie Coltrane, and Thompson, is expected to be released in 2013."

Pomerance's lawyer sent Effie Film a letter on Oct. 4, 2011, warning that Thompson's film violated copyright. Effie filed suit later that month for a judgment of noninfringement as to the Thompson screenplay.

Oetken granted that ruling Dec. 18, in a 61-page order replete with plot summaries, thematic analysis, historical background and literary allusions ranging from Greek mythology to Shakespearean imagery.

After conducting a scene-by-scene analysis for dozens of pages, the judge concludes: "The presence of these similarities in plot and plot structure does not support a finding of infringement because these plot elements map onto historical facts. Only where the works depart from actual history, or employ such creative devices as theme and pacing to infuse the work with different literary import, is copyright protection implicated."

Where the scripts take dramatic license, "these fictionalizations ... are in most cases markedly different - either obviously so or with respect to their significance for development of theme, pace, and characterization," Oetken added.

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