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Microsoft vs. Hollywood in a Clash Over Creativity

Times Staff Writer

If this were one of his screenplays, Roger Avary might have sent gun-packing, wisecracking thugs to settle his beef with Bill Gates.

Instead, the Oscar-winning co-writer of “Pulp Fiction” is sending his lawyer.

Avary on Monday sued Microsoft Corp., accusing the world’s largest software company of stealing his idea for a genre-bending video game for Microsoft’s Xbox console.

“Yourself! Fitness,” a well-reviewed exercise game aimed at women, copies large chunks of the papers Avary submitted to Microsoft during a series of meetings in 2003, he alleged in the suit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

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Microsoft spokesman Jim Desler said the Redmond, Wash., company hadn’t seen the suit and couldn’t comment.

The game features a virtual coach with the voice of fitness guru Yumi Lee, who has instructed Demi Moore, Brad Pitt and the singer Pink. The on-screen instructor talks players through a lively workout or a yoga session or just offers tips on meditation.

Avary said that’s just the sort of game he pitched to Microsoft after his agent set up a meeting in December 2002. After a couple of meetings and some enthusiastic e-mails, the Ojai resident said, he heard nothing from the company.

Then he read about “Yourself! Fitness” in the newspaper.

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“My primary purpose is to institute a policy change, so that this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” said Avary, whose partnership with director Quentin Tarantino began when the two were clerks at a Manhattan Beach video rental store.

Avary isn’t the first to claim that Microsoft ripped off an idea. But without a patent or written contract, few actually sue.

That’s because ideas in tech are less important than their execution, said Ian Ballon, an entertainment and technology lawyer not involved in Avary’s case. It’s one thing to pitch the idea of a faster word processor, quite another to build one.

The opposite often is true in Hollywood, where fresh ideas are as coveted as a reserved parking space. And many a Tinseltown collaboration has begun with a handshake.

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Under that theory, Microsoft may have just run into a major downside of its push to go Hollywood. As video games become more like the movies in their budgets, special effects and writing, game publishers must adapt to different rules.

“If they believe they can take me through a year of creative process and brain drain, and then claim they have zero obligation to me -- if that is the culture, then there is a culture clash,” said Avary, whose lawsuit also names ResponDesign Inc. of Portland, Ore., which makes “Yourself! Fitness.”

ResponDesign co-founder Phin Barnes said Monday that he came up with the idea for the game on his own in December 2002, after visiting his then-fiancee’s family.

The women in the family gave video games to the men as presents, but none played themselves. Barnes said he had notes from 2002 that reflected his thinking.

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Microsoft, he added, had very little creative input as the game was developed. “Microsoft approved the concept,” Barnes said. “They didn’t create the concept.”


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