Tarantino script leak could set legal precedent

Director Quentin Tarantino has chosen his next project: a real-life legal drama. And like so many of his blood-splattered protagonists, the director of Kill Bill and Django Unchained wants revenge.

A week after calling Deadline’s Mike Fleming, Jr. to announce that someone in his inner circle had leaked an early draft of his planned ensemble western The Hateful Eight, Tarantino has filed suit against the news and gossip site Gawker for posting links to the screenplay in question. As fans of the writer-director’s ultraviolent opuses continue to debate his decision to shelve the hotly anticipated project for at least five years — although it might be published in script form in the meantime — industry insiders are watching this saga of treachery and vengeance unfold with great interest, particularly as it pertains to creators’ rights, the ability of bloggers to share illegally obtained material and the general state of intellectual copyright law in the digital age.

The debacle, which bears all the hallmarks of a classic drawing room mystery, began after Tarantino entrusted the script to six people, including his regular collaborators Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, current Academy Award-nominee Bruce Dern and Django Unchained producer Reggie Hudlin. The latter allowed an unnamed agent to read the script at his house but was able to prevent its further dissemination. According to Tarantino, another agent, this one representing either Madsen or Dern, is to blame for the leak. Roth, who famously portrayed a police informant in the director’s 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs, was ironically the first to be cleared of suspicion.

Two days after Tarantino reported the leak to Deadline, Gawker published an article with the brazen headline “Here is the Leaked Quentin Tarantino Hateful Eight Script.” The piece, which has received nearly 200,000 hits, contains hyperlinks to a number of anonymous websites that allow readers to download the complete screenplay.

This past Monday, Tarantino’s attorneys Martin Singer and Evan Spiegel retaliated by filing a contributory copyright infringement lawsuit against Gawker Media. The filmmaker’s legal team is also seeking an injunction against the other sites as part of a concerted effort to thwart any further leaks, as well as more than $1 million in unspecified damages. If it goes to court, the case could have significant and far-reaching effects on the nature of intellectual property rights in the 21st century.

So, were Tarantino’s actions justified given the circumstances? Some of the filmmaker’s critics have accused him of orchestrating the controversy as part of some elaborate public relations stunt. Others think the filmmaker simply overreacted, saying that he’s had no problem with leaked scripts in the past, even to the point of praising his fans for seeking them out. They’re presumably referring to the screenplays for Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, both of which were widely available months before their respective release dates. The difference is that those were final drafts, released when both films were already well into production. The Hateful Eight script, by contrast, was little more than a rough sketch whose main purpose was to inspire creative feedback from a select group of Tarantino’s friends and colleagues.

No matter what your opinion on copyright law is, surely we can agree that it’s unfair to unveil a work in progress without its creator’s knowledge or consent. Imagine if every novel was judged solely by its author’s cluttered outlines or if every painting was immediately appraised by that first tentative brushstroke on canvas. The artistic medium as a whole would suffer and artists would become even more reclusive and temperamental. It would also drain the creative process of its remaining mystique, the life of the mind reduced to the level of a self-conscious celebrity’s Twitter profile.

In the midst of all this scrutiny and speculation, there’s also a lingering sense of loss over the movie that “might have been.” The Hateful Eight sounds as if it had the makings of a typically sensational outing for Tarantino, a virtuoso of viscera with one of the most enviable track records in Hollywood. Prior to the leak, the director was already hard at work promoting the film in interviews, promising audiences a ferocious hybrid of The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch, featuring Bruce Dern in his triumphant return to the western genre more than four decades after shooting John Wayne in the back at the end of 1972’s The Cowboys.

Now viewers are stuck waiting for Tarantino’s next burst of inspiration, although he recently hinted that he’s been developing another project alongside The Hateful Eight. Could it be Killer Crow, the oft-mentioned Basterds tie-in? The increasingly doubtful Kill Bill Vol. 3? That horror movie he keeps promising to make? Whatever it is, don’t be surprised if it involves the messy demise of a loose-lipped Hollywood agent.