Film Embroiled in Two Legal Battles: Life and Copyrights
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Mar 15, 2012

Film Embroiled in Two Legal Battles: Life and Copyrights

The outcome of a lawsuit in a United States District Court over whether the producers and director of an award-winning film took unfair advantage of a real-life event could bolster creativity among screenplay writers.

The film at the center of the lawsuit is “The Hurt Locker," directed by renown, action film director Kathryn Bigelow. “The Hurt Locker” is a fictionalized account of a group of United States Army soldiers assigned to an explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) team in Iraq. The film went on to win six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director.

The plaintiff, Master Sergeant Jeffrey Sarver, filed the lawsuit in 2010, only a few days before “The Hurt Locker” was announced the major winner at the 82nd presentation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science award ceremony. The argument behind Master Sgt. Saver's dismissed lawsuit is centered, among other claims, on the film's title. The plaintiff alleged that he coined the term “hurt locker” and that his likeness and life story were used by the film's screenwriter Mark Boal for financial advantage. The lawsuit sought millions of dollars as compensation.

Mark Boal is a freelance journalists who in 2004 was embedded with Master Sgt. Sarver's EOD team in Iraq. Boal ended up writing the screenplay for “The Hurt Locker” based on his observations of the EOD team with which he was embedded. Boal is no stranger to the movie and television industry. Kathryn Bigelow had previously produced “The Inside," a television series based on an article that Boal had written for Playboy magazine. Acclaimed director Paul Haggis adapted another of Boal's journalistic articles written for Playboy into "In the Valley of Elah", a fictional story about the damaged psyche of combat soldiers returning home from Iraq.

The attorney for the defendant in Master Sgt. Sarver's lawsuit underlined the importance for screenwriters and film producers. Jeremiah Reynolds stated that “filmmakers should feel comfortable using real life events as inspirations for their films.”

Screenwriters often face legal and ethical questions when plying their trade. Fictionalizing real-life accounts is at the heart of many authors who fear libel and defamation lawsuits. In the case of “The Hurt Locker," the role of Mark Boal as an embedded journalist allowed him to inform the public about the actions and conduct of United States Army teams deployed in Iraq. Nothing prevented Boal from writing a work of fiction based on real life.

Master Sgt. Sarver's lawsuit isn't the only legal action surrounding “The Hurt Locker.” In 2010, the film's production company began filing copyright infringement lawsuits against members of Internet file-sharing communities who had downloaded the film for free. Those lawsuits, which originated in the United States and have now expanded to Canada, are seeking thousands of dollars in compensation from each alleged instance of copyright infringement. Technology analysts have criticized the legal strategy presented by the production company behind “The Hurt Locker,” claiming that the cost and hassle of file-sharing lawsuits can be averted by simply offering digital copies of their film on sale or at reasonable discounts.
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