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Documentary creators sue filmmakers over Marshall University movie


The creators of the award-winning documentary “Ashes to Glory” have filed a $40 million lawsuit alleging the makers of the Hollywood film “We Are Marshall” stole their ideas and research.

Both the 2000 documentary, which was copyrighted that year, and the 2006 movie chronicle the Marshall University football program’s rise to prominence following a 1970 plane crash that killed most of the team.

The lawsuit was filed June 20 in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on behalf of Deborah Novak and John Witek.

Novak and Witek allege Warner Bros. Pictures LLC, director McG, producer Basil Iwanyk and others associated with the movie committed breach of contract, fraud and copyright infringement.

The lawsuit, which seeks a jury trial, seeks $40 million for general and economic losses, punitive and exemplary damages, statutory damages, restitution for all alleged illegal proceeds obtained by the defendants and attorneys’ fees. It also seeks an order directing the defendants to cease and desist in actions in which they obtain these alleged illegal proceeds.

A Warner Bros. representative said the company cannot comment on ongoing litigation. Messages left for lawyers for the plaintiffs and the other defendants, along with “We Are Marshall” screenwriter Jamie Linden and movie co-producer Mary Viola, were not immediately returned Wednesday.

The lawsuit alleged Novak and Witek had a contract with Warner Bros. and Thunder Road Film Productions for the sale of the rights to use concepts from “Ashes to Glory.” The lawsuit claimed Novak and Witek were to be given writer, producer and consulting credit for the film, and were to be compensated for that work.

The screenplay for “We Are Marshall” copied the concept and feel of “Ashes to Glory” but the contract was not upheld, the lawsuit claimed.

“The film dramatizes the events depicted in Ashes to Glory, in the same chronological order, with the identical tone, sequencing, story emphasis, principal characters, theme, and archival clips,” the lawsuit said.

Among the numerous examples cited in the lawsuit were the fact that the movie, like the documentary, climaxed with Marshall’s 1971 upset victory over Xavier and that scenes from both featured a slow-motion, spiraling football intercut with flashbacks.

Other similarities cited included opening with an aerial view of Huntington and the Marshall campus shot during the fall, followed by a memorial service on Marshall’s campus and an ending that included an update on the school’s football victories in the decades since the crash.

The lawsuit also accused the filmmakers of lying about their intent to use “Ashes to Glory” in the filmmaking process in order to keep Novak and Witek from developing their property into a feature film with anyone else.

John Marder, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents Novak and Witek, said the lawsuit is representative of an ongoing battle over intellectual property rights.

“Hollywood has had a long history of stealing writers’ works and not compensating them. There’s been quite a slew of lawsuits brought in that area,” he said.

While copyrights do not protect ideas, contracts do, Marder said.

“Although the industry has been aggressively resisting this area of the law, it’s to their advantage to have a clear set of rules,” he said.

“Ashes to Glory” received a Midwestern Regional Emmy Award and an Angel Award by Hollywood’s Excellence In Media organization.

–Associated Press

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