HOLLYWOOD WATCH : Intellectual Property

A concept that forms the basis for a hit movie is, after all, somebody's idea. That's so even in Hollywood, where the dream machine has a way of playing by its own rules.

Columnist Art Buchwald has made a career of poking fun at Washington, but he has now made a serious point about intellectual honesty in the movies.

As an appalled "outsider," he sued, persuading a judge to rule in 1990 that the Eddie Murphy hit "Coming to America" had been based on Buchwald's treatment and that Paramount Pictures' arcane system of accounting for profits was "unconscionable."

This week, a Superior Court judge awarded Buchwald and his producing partner a $900,000 settlement, which Buchwald said the two will share. An appeals court may eventually determine exactly where the Buchwald stops; complex issues--including the Byzantine accounting procedures of studios--may be reviewed.

Buchwald has wanted from the beginning only to make his point. So what if the award was low when measured against the millions sought and the astronomical cost of litigation? He has proved to be the perfect foil for Hollywood pretense, a high-profile writer with the resources and the inclination to deliver a tweak for a cause.

An author lacking his prestige and financing could not have taken on a powerful studio. Buchwald has made a point for all writers, be they fledgling peddlers of scripts who wait on tables by night or Pulitzer Prize winners: Making off with someone else's idea is a no-no--even in Hollywood.

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