Can you copyright the Crusades?

There is a nasty little copyright fight brewing — over a nasty piece of history: the Crusades. Author James Reston Jr. is suing 20th Century Fox for stealing his ideas. Reston claims that Fox’s new movie “Kingdom of Heaven” is based on his book “Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade.”
The legal issues seem clear cut, as pointed out in a story today’s New York Times:

Michael J. Plonsker, a lawyer with the Los Angeles firm Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan who litigates such cases, said winning them was difficult but not impossible. “History is not copyrightable,” Mr. Plonsker said. “But if the manner in which you tell about a historical event is a particular expression of character or sequence of events, that is copyrightable. If you can show that the defendant had access and that the works are substantially similar, which is the legal standard, then you can win.”

But it will come down to a case of “who-said-what.” Fox claims their writers never even read Reston’s book while Reston claims the producer and directors had already optioned the book.
Interestingly, when Oliver Stone did his movie on Alexander the Great, he not only paid tribute to the author of the book he used — Robin Lane Fox — he gave the author his greatest wish: to lead a cavalry charge in one of Alexander’s victories. Lane Fox also used the tie-in with the movie to reissue his book “Alexander the Great” complete with book jacket blurb from Stone.
That is the way that synergy from ideas is supposed to work in the intangible economy. Maybe Reston and 20th Century Fox can settle their lawsuit along the same lines.
PS – and in the irony department, 20th Century Fox is advertising an other of its movies on Grokster, at the same time it is party to the Supreme Court case against the file-sharing software (see yesterday’s post). Thanks to BoingBoing for this tip.

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