On Thursday, January 26th, Burbank, CA-based entertainment giant Walt Disney Company (NYSE:DIS) and movie production firm DreamWorks of Universal City, CA, were named as defendants in a copyright infringement suit involving the 2016 romantic drama The Light Between Oceans. The suit, which also targets the screenplay author and NYC-based book publisher Simon & Schuster, Inc., charges that both the 2016 movie and the 2012 novel upon which it is based were both plagiarized from a 2004 screenplay written by the plaintiff, Joseph Nobile. The case has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (S.D.N.Y.).
According to the official complaint filed by Nobile, he wrote a screenplay which was registered with the U.S. Copyright Office in January 2004 under the title A Tale of Two Humans. Nobile then sent copies of his script to agents and film production companies including Miramax Films and Working Title Films to seek financing for production of the film. Nobile’s suit alleges that Margot Louise Watts, the author who uses the pseudonym M.L. Stedman, began studying creative writing in 2006 or 2007 at Birkbeck College, University of London, after working as an intellectual property lawyer.
Nobile’s allegations of copyright infringement rely on Watt’s interactions with an instructor at Birkbeck College who was not named as a party to the infringement action. The instructor, Jeremy Sheldon, allegedly worked as a script reader for both Miramax and Working Title between 2004 and 2005. Along with taking Sheldon’s course at Birkbeck, Nobile’s suit alleges that Watts likely further employed Sheldon as a private writing coach and/or attended writing courses taught by Sheldon in Greece. The plaintiff argues that there is a reasonable possibility that the screenplay of A Tale of Two Humans was accessed by Watts through Sheldon, an inference which the plaintiff argues is supported by “Watts’ evasive and secretive behavior, notable for a first-time author of an acclaimed novel.”
Although certain details of Watts’ novel and resulting screenplay are tweaked from Nobile’s screenplay, the plaintiff argues that there are striking similarities between the work of the two authors. The complaint lists 22 specific examples of similarity, such as the story’s setting on a remote storm-swept island, the central couple which is childless after a series of stillbirths or miscarriages, the couple’s discovery of an infant in a small boat which washes ashore, their decision to keep the child despite the reluctance of either the husband or the wife, specific scenes in chronology and specific passages of dialogue.
Nobile’s suit includes two claims for relief, one for copyright infringement against Watts and Simon & Schuster, which published and distributed Watts’ novel and another copyright infringement claim against Disney, DreamWorks and DreamWorks’ parent Amblin Partners, also of Universal City, CA. Nobile seeks a trial by jury and the award of statutory damages for copyright infringement, or actual damages and profits based on the infringement at Nobile’s discretion, as well as attorney’s fees.