Jurors slash through a gore-flick rights feud

My hat’s off to the jurors who were able to find willful copyright infringement by production company PFG Entertainment Inc. and sales agent Ted Rosenblatt,  ordering them to pay the creator of The Toolbox Murders franchise. PFG and Rosenblatt made a deal to distribute Coffin Baby, a film written and directed by horror make-up artist Dean Jones, whom plaintiffs asserted stole and re-purposed footage from an  earlier, failed project he directed, The Toolbox Murders 2.

Jurors, who awarded $460,000 to Tony Didio, producer and creator of the original The Toolbox Murders, not only had to slash their way through B-movie history—they also lived through the horror of being exposed to some truly gruesome, exploitative films

A part of the due diligence for this post, I thought I should research and watch the Toolbox Murders. I tried to watch the original film, even some of it. I really did. But the nauseating scenes of a man using a drill on a young girl, the jarring editing, and the bad pop music, just stressed me out, man. I already juggle a full-time job and law school. My life is sufficiently complicated that I couldn’t find the stomach to watch graphic depictions of innocents’ slaughter.  So I can’t tell you what the picture’s full story is, though it has to do something with a maniac roaming an apartment building, slaying people, including naked women, in macabre fashion.

Ugh The law and history in the case? That we can review.

A bloody saga

The year was 1978. Jimmy Carter was President, Bucky Freakin’ Dent had ruined the Boston Red Sox playoff hopes, the Sex Pistols were taking America by storm, and, off the success of Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, slasher films were “the big thing.” Didio, a Hollywood producer  inspired by the success of those films, created The Toolbox Murders.  The story of  a ski-masked killer—who takes sadistic glee killing his victims with a drill, hammer, nails, screwdriver, and whatever else he could find in his toolbox —became a cult classic. It was panned by critics. But it developed a large enough following that, in 2004, with profitable slasher films re-emerging, Didio decided to remake his original film with director Tobe Hooper. Hooper directed the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which did well commercially.

And, as per usual in the film business, when a cult franchise does well, there must be as many sequels as the market can hold. Didio was inspired to continue the gore-fest with Toolbox Murders 2. Here’s where the legal complications haunt us in a story line just as confusing as the plot of the Toolbox Murders.

In a suit that started in Los Angeles county courts (and later was removed to federal jurisdiction and can be seen on Westlaw, 2013 WL 12121305), plaintiffs asserted that Didio hired Jones to direct TM2. They screened a rough cut of it for potential buyers for distribution. But it was so gory and detestable that audiences walked out of the theater on it, and they got zero offers for it. But rather than just pack up shop and move on to the next gig, Jones, the plaintiffs said, pulled a fast one and used TM2 footage in his next project, Coffin Baby. Didio got wind of Jones’ actions  and obtained the Coffin Baby footage, apparently by getting two goblins to take hard drives with it from Jones’ office. Didio then spread the word that Jones had stolen footage from The Toolbox Murders 2.  This all led film festival organizers and potential distributors, legal documents say, to stay far away from Jones and Coffin Baby.

Meantime, Didio and Jones got themselves into a legal donnybrook as to who created and owned the celluloid gore fest, whether in TM2 or Coffin Baby.

Derivative or not?

To sort out the conflict—in a court where no bloodshed is permitted—jurors and the judge had to sort out copyrights and the issue of whether Coffin Baby was a new work or just another wrench on the bench, legally speaking, a derivative of the Toolbox franchise. Derivatives are based on preexisting works, and for them to gain their own copyright, they must have substantial variation from the original. But in this instance, Jones, the court found, simply took recognizable footage from a film he did not own. The 2013 holding states that Jones—who had settled earlier and was not part of the latest legal action—showed not an iota of evidence that he had a copyright interest in the script he wrote for Toolbox Murders 2. This eliminated his claimed rights to the disputed footage.

Although the two works don’t seem to share similarity in their plots, it could be argued that Coffin Baby was so substantially different that it was a new work, different from the Toolboxes, and therefore it could be protected with copyright. But that can’t overcome the key issue of footage in it, illicitly taken from a protected work. Even an amateur’s eye can tell that there is TM2 footage  in the Coffin Baby trailer. Watch them at your own risk. Click here to see the TM2 trailer. And click here to see the Coffin Baby trailer:

By the way, the parties that end up getting gored in the final judgement from U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez were the distributor and the film sales agent. They apparently relied on falsified paperwork by the filmmaker. They didn’t exactly express remorse, with defendant Rosenblatt’s lawyer telling Law360, “It’s not about someone’s art that was stolen. It was footage taken. …”