The dysfunctional marriage of Effie Gray, a Victorian socialite, and John Ruskin, a leading art critic of his day, has provided the fodder for two distinct screenplays, according to a U.S. District Court in New York, which has granted a declaratory judgment sought by Effie Film LLC finding that British actress-author Emma Thompson’s work did not infringe on the copyright of a script by American writer Gregory Murphy.
While the movie Effie will not be released until late 2013, Effie Film wanted to preempt an infringement suit by Murphy, who wrote his script based on the same historical facts of the infamous triangle involving Gray, Ruskin and his artist-protege John Everett Millais, a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite school. The screenwriter made claims to Effie Films and the media that Thompson based her work on his script for The Countess, which tells how the youthful, gregarious socialite wed the dour critic at the urging of their parents but never consummated their marriage and how she divorced him then to wed his friend and bear him eight children and social opprobrium in a time of stuffed shirts.
The Countess was a play performed in New York and London, as well as a screenplay written by Murphy. He has published his account on how he confronted Thompson at her home, accusing her over the works, asserting she had seen his because it was sent to her husband and was at one point offered a sum to avert litigation.
The court found the two screenplays were dissimilar, by using the final Effie shooting script. Although Murphy objected to a declaratory judgment until the final film was submitted, the court reasoned that it would not likely differ significantly from the script, due to the sums spent to develop it and on litigation over it.
In its substantial-similarity analysis, the judge noted that historical facts and interpretations cannot be copyrighted, thereby excluding characters, plot and setting. Also not protected are scenes a faire, elements included in the work, not as a product of an author’s creativity but because they are obligatory, given the work’s other narrative and aesthetic choices.
U.S. District Judge Thomas P. Griesa noted that the unprotected scenes a faire in Effie included “travel by carriage, glittering ballrooms, stiff dinners, conversations over tea, and tensions arising from an overly rigid system of class and gender roles.” These, he said, would have been common in the Victorian Era. He also distinguished between the scripts, stating, “[t]he two works have no dialogue in common, no characters in common that are not historical figures, and though they contain the same settings (a similarity attributable to their shared historical background) the two screenplays give these episodes vastly differing levels of attention. The result is two works narrating the same basic events but with greatly differing internal structures.” The court did observe similarities between the two but dismissed their case significance, concluding that Effie Film did not have to show there were zero similarities but only that the works were not substantially similar in total concept and feel.
For Thompson, this is the second, successful legal hurdle she and Effie have overcome, with another U.S. District Court in New York late last year finding the work also did not infringe on the labors of screenwriter Eve Pomerance, who had written two scripts based on the Gray-Ruskin-Millais triangle. Resolving these two cases should allow for the release soon of Effie, Thompon’s lawyers in New York said.