20th Century Fox is leading the charge in protecting its intellectual property online. In a move that could redefine the underground ecosystem of people that share screenplays, both for those working inside the Hollywood showbiz system as well as interested fans that have the right connections, the movie studio served legal notice to a woman that was sharing scripts in PDF format on a file hosting website, slapping her with a $15 million dollar lawsuit.
P.J. McIlvaine is the person who was uploading scripts to a Mediafire website where anyone can download files. Fox alleges that McIlvaine uploaded 79 screenplays that Fox owns including a draft of Deadpool, a Fox superhero movie still in the script stage of development and that is, at best, still at least 18 months away from being released. Other scripts that Fox claims McIlvaine shared on the site were ones for older pictures such as Aliens, Wall Street and Die Hard. It works out to about $200,000 per screenplay that Fox is seeking in damages. Ten other defendants are named in the lawsuit as well.
Blogger/screenwriter Max Adams knows McIlvaine and has written about the case on her website. "PJ is a struggling screenwriter who sells flowers over the phone by day and writes scripts by night. She has two produced credits," writes Adams. "She is a recognizable presence on internet screenwriting bulletin boards ['Limama' on Done Deal]. She collected scripts she found [already] posted online and placed them in an online library on a Media Fire web page and made those scripts available to other screenwriters. Free of charge. As an educational tool."
I can attest that the trading of screenplays for films in all stages of development, as well as for ones that were released decades ago, has gone on since before the Internet's rise to prominence. Before email made it easy for anyone that had a hot screenplay in their hands to scan it in to their computer and convert it to a PDF file, Hollywood screenwriters, talent and casting agencies and the studios themselves would trade screenplays, often to read what was making the buzz factor around the town. Script readers are regularly hired by studios so that they can provide coverage of screenplays that haven't been bought (called "specs") or ones that are being developed by rival studios. In turn, the executives and producers read this coverage to get caught up on what's hot and who's writing those hot screenplays.
What's changed the game is the arrival of the Internet, and the ability for PDFs of screenplays for projects still in the early stages of development leaking out and into the hands of Joe Anonymous. Fifteen years ago, when websites like Coming Attractions and the many others that originated the term "movie website", were new, studio heads were horrified about casting, test screenings, insider info and yes, even reviews of early drafts of screenplays leaking out and being discussed by the general movie fan community. Sometimes the news would be so sensational or newsworthy that it would break into the mainstream press. But now the stakes have been raised with the ease of transmitting a PDF of a hot screenplay or uploading it to a file share website. Screenplay review websites like ScriptShadow have pushed the edge of the envelope even further by posting direct links to where readers can download the script being reviewed or discussed.
And it's not just leaked PDFs that 20th Century Fox takes issue with. Recently the studio sent a cease and desist letter to Cinema Blend asking for the removal of a positive review of the Deadpool screenplay. The site complied with Fox's letter, but I also know that the studio sent a C&D letter to the Screenrant website asking them to remove a news article discussing that Cinema Blend had a review of the Deadpool screenplay. Is Fox within their legal right to request sites remove reports/reviews of screenplays for films that haven't as yet been released? What about for sites that mention the mere existence of script reviews on other websites? And does Fox take any action when trade magazines such as Variety or The Hollywood Reporter mention plot details in their exclusive news reports, or when stars like Ryan Reynolds speak with the press about elements in the Deadpool movie far in advance? To what extent should a movie studio protect their interests and where is the line for the media to report on plot elements, insider production news, potential casting discussions for these in development projects? And is there even a line, or does it slide into shades of grey?
Copyright makes it quite clear on the issue of legality and that a studio owns the creative content of a screenplay, but where the matter grows dark is on the question of whether websites like Cinema Blend have the journalistic right to report and review on a screenplay, especially one for a movie that hasn't been given an official greenlight yet and is still being developed, and in their review mention previously unrevealed story elements. I myself have reported on and reviewed several screenplays that were for movie projects not in production, and I believe that I was acting within my right to report on these projects and serve the interest of film journalism while also appreciating that there is sensitive information therein that should be withheld. I also remember back in the days pre-Internet where magazines, tabloids and newspapers would publish their own articles describing, sometimes in extreme spoilers, what would happen in a movie yet to be released.
The discussion about this latest turn in the world of online script sharing is taking place on several websites that follow screenplay sharing or the discussion of scripts for movie projects in the early stages of development. Check out My PDF Scripts for several blog posts from that site's owner, and his thoughts on the ethics and responsibility of himself and others that report in his film niche.