Hey Twilight, Lay Off My Vampire Parody!
From 2008 to 2012, the Twilight saga seemed like an inescapable force of fantasy. The Stephanie Meyer books-turned-Lionsgate movies spawned an unstoppable franchise, and the empire of romantic vampires was so pervasive that you could often overhear tweens arguing over inane topics like, “Which is hotter: vampires or werewolves?” or stating (out loud), “I wish I sparkled like a vampire.” While the Cullens were sucking the blood of mortals on screen, they were simultaneously sucking the brain cells of innocent viewers.
Undoubtedly, the Twilight saga made movie history by grossing over $3.3 billion worldwide. Then, on the tail of that success, rushed in a never-ending amount of Twilight parodies and spoofs. As any studio would do with such a precious asset, Lionsgate became vigilant about protecting their intellectual property. Like a game of whack-a-mole, whenever a satire or unauthorized spoof came to light, Lionsgate was ready to nail its coffin shut.
There are probably too many parodies for even Lionsgate to count. But, when it does catch one, the accused spoofer either receives a cease and desist letter or a DMCA takedown notice. These legal practices are not uncommon tactics for a rights-owner. Yet, one production company is convinced that Lionsgate was being a bully and taking it too far with its IP protection.
Where Intellectual Property and Antitrust Law Converge
In June 2013, Behind the Lines Productions (BTL) sued Lionsgate, and its subsidiary Summit Entertainment, for a whopping $500 million, alleging that, in getting in the way of its parody film Twiharder, Lionsgate violated antitrust laws and committed copyright misuse. BTL states in its laughably long 219-page complaint that BTL became “just one more victim in a long line of independent auteurs to receive a sham ‘cease-and-desist’ notice from Defendants.” Within days of disclosing the C&D Notice to its distributors and insurance providers, BTL’s deals with these entities were dropped.
The complaint also provides an overview of legal protection in movies, the history of franchise films, and details about the tentpole business model. Additionally, it speaks of Defendants’ “predatory conduct” in relation to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to force works off YouTube. Besides hundreds of millions of dollars, the Plaintiffs also sought cancellation of Defendants’ trademarks.
On one hand, BTL’s frustration is understandable. Very often, aggressive IP protection is met with accusations of antitrust violations. While IP entitles an owner to a legal limited monopoly, the latter aims to take apart such market control. On the other hand, BTL’s complaint is a little ludicrous in its assertions. One such quotable lines provides:
“Defendants’ anticompetitive conduct sets the benchmark example for why James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were apprehensive in the months leading up to the Philadelphia Convention about granting authors even limited copyright monopolies over their works: the Chief Architects of the U.S. Constitution feared that powerful, consolidated enterprises would abuse such statutory enterprises as a means to suppress the voices of ordinary citizens. And that’s exactly what’s happening here.”
Thankfully for Lionsgate, after asserting counter-claims and moving the case to California, BTL’s complaint was dismissed – save for one rare claim for a prima facie tort.
This means that Lionsgate and Summit may be going before a jury trial on allegations it intentionally and maliciously inflicted harm on BTL by sending a cease-and-desist letter that allegedly resulted in BTL’s losing insurance and distributors.
Is Copyright a License to Censor?
In the minds of the Plaintiffs, this is boiling down to a test of a copyright holder’s censorship power.
The representatives for Plaintiffs theorize that Defendants had no economic incentive to demand that BTL cease and desist from distributing its parody. Rather, Lionsgate and Summit acted with “disinterested malevolence” and were motivated by bad faith, hypocrisy and personal animus. BTL asserts that Defendants’ true motivation in sending the C&D Notice was because they didn’t like how a vulgar parody would tarnish the wholesomeness of its own franchise. BTL also points fingers at Lionsgate for caring so much about maintaining its image because of Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon religion and how she personally hates the term Twi-hard.
Lionsgate and Summit believes this is absurd, and of course defends that its sole motivation was not to injure BTL, there is no evidence that it intentionally inflicted harm, that BTL’s assertions about personal bias and religion are baseless and irrelevant, and there’s no evidence to support a request for special damages. (Plaintiff is seeking $6 million for lost profits).
Then there are the counterclaims circling around fair use (which live on in a pending motion for summary judgment). BTL argues that as a parody, Twiharder is not attempting to be a market replacement for the Twilight series, but rather comment upon matters of public concern raised by the Twilight series, including domestic violence, racial supremacy, self-loathing, sexual abstinence and female subordination.
At this juncture, it looks like the fair use and tort claim are for a jury to decide as trial is set for next Monday, November 25th. It’s most likely that the tort claim will be decided in favor of Lionsgate. The fair use claim, though, is more of a toss-up, and the results could put a boundary on just how far a rights-holder’s copyright extends.
 Gardner, Eriq. “Twilight Parody Company Sues Lionsgate for $500 Million.” The Hollywood Reporter. May 30, 2013.
 Section 870 of the Restatement (2nd) of Torts (1979) provides that: “One who intentionally causes injury to another is subject to liability to the other for that injury, if his conduct is generally culpable and not justifiable under the circumstances. This liability may be imposed although the actor’s conduct does not come within a traditional category of tort liability.”
Feature Image via Lionsgate Film Gallery.
Parody Image via TheHillywoodShow.com