Thursday, June 13, 2002
Ninth Circuit Reinstates Claim That Producer Bochco Stole Idea for ‘City of Angels’ Television Series
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A lawsuit by a screenwriting couple who claim that producer Steven Bochco expropriated their work for his television series “City of Angels” was reinstated yesterday by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Senior U.S. District Judge Robert J. Kelleher erred in determining that a treatment and two screenplays by Jerome and Laurie Metcalf were so dissimilar from Bochco’s series about an inner-city hospital as to preclude a finding of infringement as a matter of law, the panel held.
The Metcalfs claim Bochco took advantage of their work after they gave it to a longtime friend of theirs, actor and former UCLA basketball star Michael Warren. The Metcalfs said that Warren encouraged them to prepare the treatment with the understanding Warren would pass it along to the producer.
The writers said they continued to work on the project between 1989 and 1992, even after Warren told them that Bochco lacked the time to develop the idea and CBS told them it had another hospital series in development. The Metcalfs said they were surprised when “City of Angels” premiered on CBS in January 2000, with the first episode being produced and written by Bochco and starring Warren.
The show drew critical attention as the only major network series that season with a predominantly minority cast, but was cancelled within a year due to low ratings.
The Metcalfs responded to the show’s debut by suing Bochco, his production company, Warren, CBS, and the credited co-creators of the series. Kelleher ruled there was no infringement, granted summary judgment, and awarded Bochco $83,000 in attorney fees.
But Judge Alex Kozinski, writing for the appellate panel, said the similarities between the Metcalfs’ work and the series were sufficiently “striking” to meet the Ninth Circuit’s “extrinsic test” for copyright infringement.
“Both the Metcalf and Bochco works are set in overburdened county hospitals in inner-city Los Angeles with mostly black staffs. Both deal with issues of poverty, race relations and urban blight,” the judge explained. “The works’ main characters are both young, good-looking, muscular black surgeons who grew up in the neighborhood where the hospital is located.”
“Both surgeons struggle to choose between the financial benefits of private practice and the emotional rewards of working in the inner city. Both are romantically involved with young professional women when they arrive at the hospital, but develop strong attractions to hospital administrators. Both new relationships flourish and culminate in a kiss, but are later strained when the administrator observes a display of physical intimacy between the main character and his original love interest. Both administrators are in their thirties, were once married but are now single, without children and devoted to their careers and to the hospital. In both works, the hospital’s bid for re-accreditation is vehemently opposed by a Hispanic politician.”
While many of these elements are too generic to enjoy copyright protection on their own, the “cumulative weight” of the similarities entitles the Metcalfs to a trial, the judge said. The Metcalfs’ case, he added, is bolstered by the evidence that Bochco had access—through Warren—to their work.
The opinion was joined by Judge Stephen Gould and U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer of the Northern District of California, sitting by designation.
The appeal was argued by Robert F. Helfing of Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold for the Metcalfs and Edward A. Ruttenberg of Leopold, Petrich & Smith for Bochco.
The case is Metcalf v. Bochco, 01-55811.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company