‘Amistad’ to set sail unshackled

A federal judge declined Monday to block the release of “Amistad,” Steven Spielberg’s first film for DreamWorks. The decision was hailed by the studio as a significant victory in its defense of a $10 million copyright infringement lawsuit brought by author Barbara Chase-Riboud.

The ruling was preceded by an hour of backroom talks between attorneys for DreamWorks and Chase-Riboud, who tried to reach an agreement on a settlement and a screen credit for the author. But those discussions ended without a deal, and the court released its ruling.

U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins told a packed downtown L.A. courtroom that she would not hold up the bow of Spielberg’s film about a slave-ship revolt because Chase-Riboud could not prove a “substantial similarity” between the film and her 1989 novel, “Echo of Lions.”

The author sued DreamWorks on Oct. 16, alleging that the film’s scribe, David Franzoni, had plagiarized her historical novel when writing the screenplay.

Suit fails test

Collins declined to grant Chase-Riboud’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have stopped “Amistad” from opening Wednesday in New York and L.A because the author’s lawsuit could not meet a critical test for an injunction: that it had “the likelihood of succeeding on its merits at trial.” A preliminary injunction had widely been considered a long shot.

But Collins based her ruling on information in motions filed by Chase-Riboud’s lawyer, Pierce O’Donnell, and not on any material discovered during the litigation process. As a result, many of Collins’ observations were couched with “at this time” and “not at this stage.”

Collins also relied heavily on the distinction between an “idea” and the “expression of the idea” to sort out which, if any, of the similarities contained in Chase-Riboud’s “Echo of Lion” and “Amistad” were influenced by history or were cribbed by Franzoni.

“I’m very disappointed,” Chase-Riboud told Daily Variety after the ruling, just before facing throngs of reporters on the courthouse steps. “Despite clear and convincing evidence my book was used, (the court) didn’t see it.”

Lawsuit not affected

Collins’ ruling, which has no impact on the lawsuit, was contained in a 25-page opinion that considered nine story points Chase-Riboud alleged to be similar in the two works as its basis.

“We’ve denied there was any copying and we will prove it at trial,” said Bert Fields, who along with attorney Robert Chapman argued the motion on behalf of DreamWorks. In his remarks to the court, Fields said, “The substantial similarity test just can’t be met here.”

The film’s producer, Debbie Allen, who was in court for the ruling, said she was pleased by the outcome. “For me it’s over. The film is going to be seen, and that’s what mattered most,” she said as she exited the courtroom. “It’s such an incredible story.”

DreamWorks said it has invested $75 million in producing and marketing the film, which Spielberg has called “perhaps the most important of my career.” He did not attend the hearing.

“We are very pleased by the judge’s decision and happy this movie will be seen,” DreamWorks said in a statement.

Chase-Riboud claims DreamWorks misappropriated “themes, dialogue, characters, relationships, plots, scenes and fictional inventions” from her historical novel. She specifically claims the characterization of a black abolitionist played by Morgan Freeman was copied from her book.

“Franzoni is a rank plagiarist,” O’Donnell told the court. He also contended there was “pretty good evidence that Franzoni is not credible.” The scribe has denied copying “Echo” and has maintained he never read it before writing the “Amistad” screenplay.

No conclusive proof

In her decision, Collins said she found no conclusive proof of copying. “Because (Chase-Riboud) has failed to demonstrate a probability of success on the merits, no presumption of irreparable injury arises,” Collins wrote.

The “irreparable injury” aspect was crucial to getting the preliminary injunction granted.

Chase-Riboud will now have to wait for her lawsuit to go to trial, which is expected sometime in mid-1998.

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