*A 98-page opinion was issued last week by a Tennessee federal judge that dismissed a lawsuit from Grammy-winning singer Sam Moore against The Weinstein Company over the 2008 film, “Soul Men,” starring Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Moore brought the lawsuit in 2009 alleging that the film about two African-American soul singers was a thinly-veiled rip-off of his part in the popular Memphis Soul singing duo Sam & Dave, whose hits included the 1967 song “Soul Man.”
The case became contentious even by Hollywood brass-knuckle standards and featured such peculiarities as Jackson testifying in a deposition that he often doesn’t watch the documentary films he’s agreed to voice. The case also touched upon so many burning legal controversies in entertainment law, it could easily serve as a primer for anyone considering the field.
Moore said his publicity rights were violated because the film was allegedly too similar to his career. Further, he alleged he’s referred to as “Sam Moore ‘The Legendary Soul Man’” and that the film violated his trademarks. He also argued that the film’s soundtrack was passed off as a project he endorsed and constituted unfair competition to his own musical works. And Moore believed that because the film was close enough to his life experiences, the divergences (the characters swear, hurl racial epithets, brandish weapons, etc.) put him in a false light.
All of these claims were pitted against a First Amendment right to free expression, and when the judge first refused to dismiss the case in 2010, it appeared that one of Hollywood’s favorite genres – the biopic – could be endangered. Or at very least, Hollywood producers might have to pay for “life rights” to any celebrity whose publicity rights might be implicated by a film or TV show.
But then the case went through a nearly two-year-long discovery fight. Experts were brought forward and doubted. Depositions were taken, and in the case of Jackson, interrogated hard. The actor testified, among other things, that he didn’t base his dancing moves on “Sam & Dave” dancing moves, which were previously shown in a PBS documentary that he once narrated—which he didn’t actually view, as was his customary practice.
The culmination of this long ordeal was a decision last week by Tennessee District Court Judge Aleta Trauger granting the Weinsteins’ motion for summary judgment.
The lengthy opinion first knocks out some of the plaintiff’s experts as inadequate and unreliable. One of them didn’t even watch the film and yet came to the conclusion that the Weinsteins “must have known” about the plaintiff’s “Soul Man” when they produced and marketed Soul Men. Judge Trauger isn’t impressed by the assumption.
Instead, the judge weighs the film’s relationship with the plaintiff:
“Notwithstanding these broad similarities, the Movie contains no direct references to “Sam & Dave” or “Sam Moore.” Sam Moore’s name is never mentioned in the Movie, nor does the Movie contain any photographs or images of Sam Moore or Sam & Dave. The Movie begins with a disclaimer that “The persons and events in this motion picture are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons or events is unintentional.” The Movie does not contain any “Sam & Dave” recordings; the only Sam & Dave song in the film is the cover version of “Hold On I’m Comin,’” performed by The Real Deal (i.e., Jackson and Mac). The Movie contains various original recordings of musical performances by other R&B artists, covers of several non-Sam & Dave songs by The Real Deal, and the original song “A Walk in the Park,” which was recorded by Jackson and Mac specifically for the Movie.”
Then, claim-by-claim, the judge picks apart Moore’s case.
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