Copyright, Movies, Music

On Remand: Lawyers Ain’t Afraid Of No Ghosts

Are you troubled by strange noises in the middle of the night? Do you experience feelings of dread in your basement or attic? Have you or your family ever seen a spook, spectre, or ghost?” If you recognize those movie lines then perhaps you know that yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of the release of Ghostbusters. The movie starred Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis as three ousted Columbia parapsychology professors who start a supernatural elimination business. Joined by a fourth crusader (Ernie Hudson), the Ghostbusters save New York City from a ghoulish invasion unleashed when a meddling EPA agent shuts down their ghost containment system. This week, On Remand looks back at Ghostbusters, the lawsuits it generated, and the case of one man who needed a Ghostbuster, but called a lawyer instead.

Inspired by 1930s ghost films and a family history with the paranormal business, Dan Aykroyd wrote the first draft of the Ghostbusters script. Director Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis later joined the project as writers and advisors. Sequestering themselves in a Martha’s Vineyard bomb shelter, the three men rewrote the script, scrapping Aykroyd’s darker version that took place in the extraterrestrial future and setting it instead in New York City. Among the elements that remained from Aykroyd’s original script were the iconic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man and the Ghostbusters logo. John Belushi, originally envisioned by Aykroyd as a Ghostbuster, died before the script was finished.  He appears, in spirit, as the gluttonous ghost “Slimer.”

Ghostbusters was a commercial and critical success. On a $30 million budget, the movie grossed nearly $300 million and earned Oscar nominations for visual effects and original song. But the “original” part of the song’s honor quickly became the subject of dispute.

Do you like Huey Lewis and the News? The producers of Ghostbusters certainly did. When the band declined to provide a song for the film, the producers hired Ray Parker, Jr. According to Huey Lewis and The News, Parker’s resulting 1984 hit “Ghostbusters” sounded an awful lot like “I Want a New Drug.” The band sued and eventually settled, agreeing to keep the terms confidential. But after a 2001 appearance on VH1’s “Behind the Music,” it was Lewis’s turn to be the defendant. During the segment, Lewis accused Parker of “ripp[ing] this song off” and hinted that the settlement with Parker included a payment to The News. Parker sued Lewis for breaching the confidentiality clause; the case was dismissed nine months later.

When Ghostbusters II hit theaters in 1989, it brought a sequel to the movie’s theme song spat. The song — “On Our Own” — performed by Bobby Brown and written by Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, like the Parker song before it, hit the Billboard charts. But a Minneapolis musician named Derrick Moore sued Columbia Pictures and others, claiming that he wrote the tune. Although Reid and Babyface may have heard Moore’s song before writing their own (Moore’s demo was listed on the “tape log” of an MCA Vice President who worked with Reid and Edmonds on “On Our Own”), the Eighth Circuit found little similarity between the songs. Judge Lay dissented, arguing that a jury, not judges, should decide the issue:

I have played the tape which contains the two musical compositions and although I do not know the difference between be-bop, hip-hop, and rock and roll, the tunes all sound the same to me… Obviously judges have no expertise to resolve this kind of question…

Ghostbusters-related litigation did not stop at the movies’ theme songs. In 1984, Columbia Pictures’ attorneys strapped on their proton packs to defend the studio against a $52 million lawsuit over the Ghostbusters logo. In the suit, Harvey Cartoons alleged that the Ghostbusters logo (a ghost peering through the international prohibition symbol) infringed its copyright and trademark in “Fatso,” a ghost character from the Casper, The Friendly Ghost comic books. According to Harvey Cartoons, “Fatso” of “The Ghostly Trio” and the nameless ghost in the Ghostbusters logo had too much in common. As described by the Eighth Circuit, The Ghostly Trio’s Fatso is “[t]he fattest of the three faces,” with “a cleft chin, bulbous nose, mischievous grin, slanted eyebrows, piercing eyes” and a “top-knotted forehead [that] droops forward.” Or, if you prefer a picture to 1,000 words, see the fat ghost in the foreground of this picture.

The court dismissed Harvey Cartoon’s case because Harvey had failed to renew the copyrights on its Casper comic books from the 1950s when Fatso first appeared. (The current Copyright Act does not require registration for copyright protection to apply, but the Harvey Cartoons Court applied a prior version of the Act.) Without copyright protection, Fatso was in the public domain, and free to be copied and altered by anyone. But even if Harvey had copyright protection for Fatso, the court still would have slimed the lawsuit. The court stated in dicta that the ghosts looked different.

While the Eighth Circuit quieted disputes regarding fictional ghosts, the New York Supreme Court was “ready to believe” in the supernatural when it confronted a 1991 real estate case.  After making a $32,500 down payment on 1 LaVeta Place in Nyack, New York, Jeffrey Stambovsky learned what many already knew: the house was haunted. A local newspaper article had described the house as “a riverfront Victorian (with ghost),” and the home’s owner at the time, Helen Ackley, had written about the home’s three ghosts in Reader’s Digest. Unwilling to share space with three spirits, Stambovsky backed out of the deal, losing his down payment.  Haunted by the loss of $30K, Stambovsky then sued Ackley, seeking to rescind the contract and regain his cash.

New York, however, is a caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) state, so Stambovsky was responsible for assessing the house’s value. Neither the real estate agent nor the seller had a legal duty to disclose the typically unseen roommates. Accordingly, the lower court dismissed his case. But, as the Supreme Court pointed out:

Applying the strict rule of caveat emptor to a contract involving a house possessed by poltergeists conjures up visions of a psychic or medium routinely accompanying the structural engineer and Terminex man on an inspection of every home subject to a contract of sale.

In the end the Supreme Court concluded that, “as a matter of law, the house is haunted…” Yet, because the law provided no recourse, the judge conjured one in the “spirit of equity.” Because Stambovsky was not a local, how could he know there was something strange in the neighborhood? While Ackley had told the “public at large” about the home’s poltergeists, she never mentioned the fact to Stambovsky. Her sudden silence on the home’s spooky nature provided grounds in equity for Stambovsky’s suit and it was reinstated.

After a twenty-five year absence, Hollywood may be ready to reinstate the Ghostbusters. The original will return to theaters in August and there are plans for a third film.  Murray has said Ghostbusters III is his “nightmare,” but Reitman, Aykroyd, Rick Moranis, and Sigourney Weaver have said they would participate in a third film. Although Ramis was involved with an early draft of the script, after his death in February, the producers hired a new principal writer. Perhaps like the “Slimer” homage to Belushi, Ramis can appear in spirit as a spore, mold, and fungus-collecting apparition. And, if there is further legal trouble, the producers know who they’re gonna call — their lawyers.


Samantha Beckett (not her real name) is the KeyCite master. When not opening portals to alternate worlds, she is most likely billing time. Her writing has been featured in state and federal courts across the nation and in the inboxes of countless clients, colleagues, and spooks. She can be reached at OnRemand@gmail.com.

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