A clan of faux-fiends is plotting to suck Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment dry.
Behind the Lines Productions, the company behind a Twilight parody called Twiharder, has filed a $500 million suit against the makers of the Twilight films. In a 219-page complaint obtained by EW, the parodists write that they were planning to release their film last fall — around the same time that The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2 hit theaters. A trailer for the movie was posted to YouTube last June:
But after Summit and Lionsgate sent out a cease-and-desist letter, the plaintiffs claim, potential distributors grew skittish about risking the larger studios’ ire — even though Behind the Lines says its parody falls under the terms of the “fair use” doctrine, which protects “independent filmmakers, parodists and other ‘counter-cultural’ artists who create separate or derivative works that may be related to, inspired by or comment upon the pop culture events that dominate the national Cineplex and, by extension the attitudes, perspectives and behaviors of the populace.”
Additionally, according to Behind the Lines, Lionsgate’s use of the “tentpole model” — which treats the Twilight franchise as a single property it controls completely — “has granted Defendants an unfettered license to threaten scores of independent artists with generic, stock allegations of copyright infringement and trademark infringement.” The complaint agrees with “media observers” such as the website TechDirt, which characterized Summit’s zealous invocation of intellectual property law as “ridiculous-to-insane” in a blog post published in March 2012.
It claims as well that because Lionsgate and Summit have registered over a dozen Twilight-related trademarks, “the universe of potential infringers” has been increased “exponentially,” effectively creating an intellectual property monopoly “in which all the statutory rights granted by the Copyright Act simply become interchangeable with (and/or subsumed by) the statutory privileges granted by the Trademark Act.”
EW reached out to Lionsgate, but a rep for the studio had no comment on the pending suit.
What, exactly, does this lawsuit mean? “The whole goal of trademark law is to represent to the consumer that this is a legitimate good produced by the trademark owner,” Dr. William E. Lee, a communications law professor at the University of Georgia, explained to EW this afternoon. There’s also a separate trademark doctrine called dilution, which protects against “using a trademark in such reprehensible ways as to tarnish its value.”
Under both trademark law and copyright law, Lee says, Twiharder seems perfectly legal. And despite that cease-and-desist, Lionsgate hypothetically would have had a tough time proving otherwise in court. The studio’s strategy was likely a way to fight a “war of attrition” against the parodists. Lee explained that the studio is essentially saying “We know we’re not going to win this lawsuit, but we are going to force you to spend lots of money which you probably don’t have to defend yourself. And we’ll just wear you down, because we’ve got tons of money and tons of lawyers.”
That said, Lee noted that there is “some ambiguity in the law” which could conceivably scare off a distributor — just as Between the Lines claims. The problem, though, will be getting one of those distributors to admit as much in court. “The plaintiff bears the burden here, and boy, I just don’t see this succeeding,” he said.
As for that gigantic $500 million price tag? It’s little more than wishful thinking: When asked whether the amount sounded ambitious, Lee answered, “‘Hallucinatory’ might be a better word.” There’s little chance that Behind the Lines will receive the payday they’re seeking — “Those amounts mean nothing, and Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment can make this go away for a much smaller amount than $500 million,” said Lee.