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Writers’ Spat Over ‘The Girls’ Likely Headed to Trial

While celebrated novelist Emma Cline’s bestseller “The Girls” may have things in common with a screenplay penned by her ex-boyfriend, a federal judge ruled late Thursday that he didn’t find the two works substantially similar enough to support the accusation that she stole her material from him. 

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – While celebrated novelist Emma Cline’s bestseller “The Girls” may have things in common with a screenplay penned by her ex-boyfriend, a federal judge ruled late Thursday that he didn’t find the two works substantially similar enough to support the accusation that she stole her material from him.

“There are undeniable similarities between the works, but they are predominantly isolated to a few intermittent scenes and general plot ideas,” U.S. District Judge William Orrick III said in his 60-page ruling on cross-motions to dismiss. “Both stories are ‘coming of age’ tales of sorts. But they vary significantly in detail, breadth, and texture.”

The dispute came to a head with Cline’s completion of “The Girls” in 2014. By then, she had broken up with Chaz Reetz-Laiolo, a fellow writer she met in 2009 and dated on and off for four years.

Cline was a 20-year-old student at the time, and Reetz-Laiolo a 33-year-old lecturer at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. They shared drafts of their writing before the relationship soured, and while Cline says she repeatedly asked that he review her manuscript “both because she wanted his input and so he would be aware that certain facts from his life and their shared life had been included,” Reetz-Laiolo declined.

Penguin Random House bought the book in 2014 for $2 million. After some back and forth with Cline, Reetz-Laiolo requested a copy of the manuscript that sold. In November 2015 he wrote to Cline: “I would not publish this novel if I were you. It is vile how much of my work you have plagiarized in it.”

“The Girls” was published in 2016 skyrocketed Cline to literary stardom. It also marked the start of her legal troubles with Reetz-Laiolo, who sent her a demand letter claiming she had stolen some 36 phrases, sentences and scenes she accessed by installing a key-logging software called Refog on his computer, which had formerly been hers.

“This litigation grist for its own novel,” Orrick said in untangling the pair’s claims in dueling lawsuits both filed on November 29, 2017.

Reetz-Laiolo later revealed that the allegedly infringed work was his unpublished screenplay entitled “All Sea,” a coming-of-age tale set in the 1990s that features a teenage protagonist named Gabe. Cline’s book, inspired by the Manson Family, is set alternately in 1969 and the present day and is told from the prospective of a teenaged girl named Evie who is drawn into a cult led by a charismatic older man. According to Cline, it also draws on details from her own life, including when she was dating Reetz-Laiolo.

In her lawsuit, Cline describes “an escalating campaign by her abusive ex-boyfriend to extract millions of dollars by intimidation and threat, all under the auspices of frivolous claims of copyright infringement, a long-stale complaint that Cline ‘invaded’ his privacy, and a ludicrous theory that she hacked into and stole unpublished written work from his computer.”

Orrick said it was not enough that both stories had some similar basic elements when the plot, characters and settings are so vastly different.

He took a paragraph to contrast the works:


“Gabe is a sensitive youth who likes stability and is repeatedly disappointed by the adults in his life. By contrast, Evie is drawn to instability, which leads her to follow the allure of the girls. Gabe’s mother is protective of her son but struggles to get by and is prone to drinking and outings with random men. Evie’s mother is a financially well-off but insecure divorcee who searches for external reassurance and pays little attention to Evie. Gabe’s ‘father figure’ Ray is depicted as direct – antagonizing the local sheriff and pursuing his estranged wife to a fault. Evie’s father is presented as an ineffective man who is dominated by his younger girlfriend. He has little impact on Evie’s life and the plot.”

He concluded, “In light of these substantial differences, it is simply not enough for Reetz-Laiolo to argue that both works have a teenage protagonist, a flawed single mother, a father figure, and another young woman.”

Whether Cline actually committed a rash of cybercrimes when she “hacked” Reetz-Laiolo’s laptop is a thornier question, Orrick found.

On this claim, Reetz-Laiolo was joined by another ex-girlfiend, Kristin Keisel and former roommate Kari Bernard. All three say in their lawsuit that Cline regularly accessed their email accounts because they had used her laptop on which the Refog software was installed.

“Refog ran continuously on Cline’s computer and ‘intercepted some of [p]laintiffs’ emails, chat messages, bank account data, usernames, passwords and other sensitive information submitted and received through websites by taking screenshots of these electronic communications while they were in transit,” their lawsuit says. They also say Cline used an IP address scrambler called VTunnel to cover her tracks.

Reetz-Laiolo says he discovered the hacking in 2015 after he asked a computer specialist friend to figure out why the laptop, which Cline sold him in 2013, was running so slowly. Cline had told him she “wiped” the computer, but he uncovered a cache of screen capture files that showed she had remotely surveilled his use of the computer during 2013-2015.

In her countersuit, Cline claims she installed the software in 2010 “in an attempt to protect herself from Reetz-Laiolo’s prying into her personal documents, the possibility of a future sexual transmission of disease, and any other deceptions,” and that she had no way of accessing the computer after she sold it.

Furthermore, Cline says Reetz-Laiolo used her computer to email himself a copy of her private journal. She also says because of the Refog software, Reetz-Laiolo still had access to all of her computer activity from 2010 through 2013, and in an attempt to extort her threatened to reveal nude photographs of her, along with sexually explicit email exchanges to others.

Orrick declined to dismiss most of Reetz-Laiolo and his co-plaintiffs’ hacking claims, saying it might take a trial to determine whether the facts bear out what they allege.

While Cline denies unauthorized access to a computer, Orrick said Reetz-Laiolo, Bernard, and Kiesel have a strong case based on their claims that Cline researched how to run Refog remotely.

“But the issue of whether their allegations of remote access sufficiently state a claim presents a much closer question. They underscore their allegations that Cline researched running Refog in ‘hidden mode’ and researched Refog’s ‘Personal Monitor,’ which has a remote access feature,” Orrick wrote. “They also allege that Cline obtained copies of Reetz-Laiolo’s All Sea manuscript that he had not provided to her. According to plaintiffs, these allegations are sufficient to support the reasonable inference that Cline remotely accessed the laptop after selling it to Reetz-Laiolo, thereby establishing that she accessed a ‘computer’ without authorization.”

As for Cline, Orrick dismissed her claim for conversion of her diary as untimely, writing, “Even if I accept Cline’s allegation that in 2012 Reetz-Laiolo told her he would delete the journal and she has thus demonstrated that he ‘affirmatively misled’ her, she has not included any allegations of her diligence to uncover the misrepresentation.”

He let her claim of tortious inference stand, finding it a close question as to whether dealing with her ex caused her to miss paid speaking engagements for “The Girls.”

“Even though Cline independently chose to cancel those engagements, she alleges that she would not have done so ‘but-for’ Reetz-Laiolo’s tortious conduct,” he wrote.

Lawyers for both sides did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment late Thursday.

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