Warner Bros. Wins Marshall Suit

A federal judge ruled that Warner Bros.' 2006 pigskin drama, We Are Marshall, did not rip off a 2000 sports documentary

By Josh Grossberg Oct 22, 2008 9:26 PMTags
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Call it the Hail Mary that wasn't.

A federal judge has ruled that Warner Bros.' 2006 pigskin drama, We Are Marshall, did not rip off the 2000 Emmy-winning sports documentary Ashes to Glory: The Tragedy and Triumph of Marshall Football.

Deborah Novak and John Witek produced the latter, which chronicled the tragic 1970 airplane crash that killed 37 members of Marshall University's football team and the school's remarkable efforts the following year to rebuild the program.

The pair filed a $40 million copyright infringement lawsuit alleging Warners lifted material from Ashes for its own McG-directed flick starring Matthew McConaughey—after talks fell through for the studio to purchase rights to their doc. (View the court documents.)

U.S. District Court Judge Gary Allen Feess didn't buy that argument, however, and issued a summary judgment in Warner Bros.' favor Monday in Los Angeles. He noted there was "no basis for relief" on any of the claims, because much of what transpires in Marshall can be gleaned from news reports and other public sources and is partly fictionalized.

"Though the two works tell the story of the Nov. 14, 1970, airplane crash, that event, and the events that preceded and followed, are all matters of public record which cannot be copyrighted," the judge wrote in a lengthy opinion.

He added that while Novak and Witek told a straight, fact-based story in Ashes to Glory, Warners "produced a dramatic re-creation of the events that, though based on the historic record including the documentary, does not appropriate Plaintiffs' expressive elements and makes no pretense of being historically accurate."

Feess cited 15 substantial differences between documentary and film, chief among them the "We Are Marshall" chant depicted in the latter, which the judge noted never happened in real life.

Concluded Feess: "Even though the two works have the same story as their subject, they are not substantially similar as the phrase is used in copyright jurisprudence."

The judge also tossed out breach of contract and fraud claims against Warner Bros.

"We are very gratified by the court's dismissal of this unmeritorious lawsuit," read a statement from the studio. "By re-affirming the fundamental principle that historical facts cannot be owned and are not protected by copyright, the decision is a victory not only for the creative team behind We Are Marshall but also for all writers and filmmakers who derive their inspiration from real-life events."

Attorneys for Novak and Witek were unavailable for comment.