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'Trouble With the Curve' lawsuit faces key test

EntertainmentMoviesPatents, Copyrights and TrademarksJustice SystemCrime, Law and JusticeClint EastwoodWarner Bros.

Clint Eastwood's "Trouble With the Curve" wasn't a box-office hit, but that hasn't stopped a bitter and costly lawsuit over its authorship.

On Monday, a federal judge in Los Angeles will try to determine whether the baseball movie stole more than a base.

Former actor Randy Brown tried for years to become a screenwriter. Finally, after almost two decades of thankless effort, he sold a baseball story to Clint Eastwood's production company. 

The result was the Warner Bros. feature film "Trouble With the Curve," directed by Eastwood's longtime producing partner, Robert Lorenz, and starring Dirty Harry himself. 

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The film, a critical and commercial washout, grossed just $48.9 million globally. But Brown could say he wrote a produced feature.

Or could he? Now Brown must face accusations that his script was a copy of another baseball screenplay, called "Omaha," which producer Ryan Brooks alleges is his company's original creation.

In a copyright infringement lawsuit filed against Brown, Warner Bros. and Eastwood's production company, among others, Brooks and his production company allege that "Trouble With the Curve" not only copies the plot, characters, setting and scenes from "Omaha," but also that Brown's computer files and notebooks were doctored as part of an elaborate conspiracy to hide the plagiarism.

Brooks is seeking all "Trouble With the Curve" revenue on the basis of criminal copyright infringement, damages "in excess of tens of millions of dollars" and attorneys' fees.

Although the case is but one of dozens of usually unsuccessful complaints filed every year by screenwriters who claim that someone stole their scripts, the "Trouble With the Curve" litigation has been particularly venomous. 

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Warner Bros. dismisses the lawsuit as "reckless and a waste of time and money."

"The allegations are false," studio spokesman Paul McGuire said.

Lawyers for Brooks declined to comment.

In addition to piles of pleadings and expert reports costing tens of thousands of dollars, U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer and her law clerks have been sent and asked to compare several dozen drafts of "Trouble With the Curve" and "Omaha" ahead of Monday's hearing, in which lawyers for Brown, Eastwood and Warner Bros. will ask her to dismiss the lawsuit.

Brooks' lawyers are opposing that request for summary judgment and have asked the court to grant them more time to collect evidence to bolster their case.

Brown's attorneys hope to benefit from both copyright law and the sworn statements from several Hollywood executives, who say they read or knew about "Trouble With the Curve" as far back as 1997 — almost a decade before Brooks copyrighted his "Omaha" screenplay. 

Copyright infringement law broadly requires that Brooks, a producer ("Inocente," "The Elephant King") and former college baseball player, prove that Brown had access to "Omaha" to copy it and that there is a "substantial similarity of protected expression" between the two works. 

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"Protected expression" doesn't include basic story lines or stock characters like grumpy older men. But even a plaintiff who doesn't have evidence of the defendant's prior access can still win if there is a "bare possibility" that the defendant could have viewed the work and that the works are "strikingly similar," or nearly exact copies.

Brooks alleges that Don Handfield, his screenwriting collaborator on "Omaha," was represented by the same talent agent as Brown after parting ways with Brooks on bad terms, thus providing a conduit for copying.

"The similarities between the relevant works at issue in this case are in fact striking," Brooks argues in one filing, saying that "Omaha" and "Trouble With the Curve" share Handfield's unique linguistic "fingerprints."

Michael J. Saltz, a lawyer for Handfield, "categorically denies all of the allegations" against his client.

According to sworn testimony from Brown, who declined to be interviewed, he started writing in the 1980s and enrolled in a UCLA Extension screenwriting class in 1995.

Brown said he pitched his idea for "Trouble With the Curve" to teacher Neil Landau, and his first draft of the tale of an aging and ailing baseball scout and his relationship with his estranged daughter "contained all of the characters and major story line" that Brooks now says Brown stole from "Omaha."

Brown and several witnesses say the Bubble Factory, a production company launched by former MCA Inc. President Sid Sheinberg and his sons, entered into an agreement in late 1997 to develop "Trouble With the Curve." 

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But the Bubble Factory was unable to land a big-name actor to star, hitting dead ends with Paul Newman, Walter Matthau, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman, according to a sworn affidavit from company executive Bill Sheinberg.

By late 1999, the production company parted ways with Brown. But in 2011, thanks to a chance meeting at a book party, Brown was able to get his script to Eastwood's company, which agreed to make it. Suddenly, his disappointing Hollywood career had new life.

Brown insists in sworn declarations that his script is original and that he copied nothing from "Omaha."

Brooks says that's a lie, and his lawyers say they have the forensic evidence to prove it.

Even though he concedes that the two screenplays are "not identical," Brooks argues in his court papers that the similarities between "Omaha" and "Trouble With the Curve" are so profound that the latter is a near facsimile of the former.

Backed by the sworn declarations from authorities on screenwriting and authorship, Brooks' lawyers maintain that Handfield, with Brooks' guidance, is the true creator of "Trouble With the Curve," not Brown.

The most dramatic allegation is that Brown or people who helped him falsified evidence by doctoring computer discs and tried to pass off recently purchased spiral notebooks as dating from the 1990s.

Brown's lawyers deny those allegations.

john.horn@latimes.com 

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EntertainmentMoviesPatents, Copyrights and TrademarksJustice SystemCrime, Law and JusticeClint EastwoodWarner Bros.
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