If the horror movie Cabin in the Woods taught us anything it is to expect the unexpected. Well, I am sure Lions Gate and the team behind the movie weren’t expecting a lawsuit some three years after the release of the movie claiming it is a ripoff of the plaintiff’s book.
Cabin in the Woods was Drew Goddard’s first job directing a script he co-wrote with Avengers director, Joss Whedon. The story seems to tell the simple tale of of group of friends heading to a weekend retreat when they mistakenly awaken a zombie family but the plot twists then turn the movie into something totally unexpected. The release of the movie turned into a story itself. While it was made in 2009, the movie was held back from release due to bankruptcy filings by MGM and then a conversion to 3-D. The film was finally released by Lions Gate on April 13, 2012 to positive reviews and earned $65 million world-wide during its theatrical run.
Fast forward until Monday, exactly three years after the release, when Peter Gallagher filed a copyright infringement action against all the people behind the movie including Lions Gate, Goddard and Whedon. The statute of limitations for copyright infringement is three years from discovery, the reason why the case was filed on the anniversary of the release of the film. Gallagher claims that his 2006 book, The Little White Trip: A Night in the Pines, was ripped off for the story of Cabin in the Woods. Gallagher spends numerous pages of the complaint comparing the two stories: names are similar (Brinkley Cabin and Buckner Cabin); both stories have five friends visiting a remote cabin and then being manipulated and filmed; and even both the lead characters are blonde and have blue eyes. Gallagher’s book doesn’t have the same big twist at the end though.
Lawsuits like this are very routine and the plaintiff bears a difficult burden showing that that defendants had access to the not widely released book and that the two works are substantially similar. Teenagers going to the woods and being terrorized by an evil force is pretty routine for movies and this general motif is not protectable under copyright law. Plaintiff needs to show substantial similarity between the overall plot, theme, dialogue and events.
Gallagher alleges damages in excess of $10 million for the infringement but does not explain why he waited the three years to bring this action. This shouldn’t do much to slow down the careers of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon as Goddard is reportedly in discussions to direct the next reboot of Spider-Man that will be released in 2017 and Whedon has Avengers: Age of Ultron out in theaters on May 1st.