Emma Thompson and the “Effie” Showdown

14 May

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A New York federal court is caught up in the feud over the rights to a sexless marriage.

Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson is asking a federal court to protect her from a copyright dispute with American playwright Gregory Murphy over her screenplay about the scandalous marriage of Victorian-era critic John Ruskin and his young wife, Effie Gray.

Effie, a much admired beauty, famously left Ruskin, saying their marriage was sexless and, “He was disgusted by my person.” The marriage was annulled in 1854. Effie then married Ruskin’s protégé, painter John Everett Millais — creating a love triangle that scandalized Victorian England.

Murphy wrote the off-Broadway hit “The Countess” about Ruskin, which ran for 600 performances until 2000. He says that Thompson’s screenplay, “Effie,” is based on his drama and that he had mailed her and her husband, Greg Wise, a copy to see if either would take roles in a subsequent West End staging and a planned movie version.

Thompson is now asking New York’s Southern District to rule that “Effie,” to star herself, Wise and Orlando Bloom, is in no way based on Murphy’s play. Her filing says she needs the ruling to secure funding for her movie, to start production in August.

It reads: “In creating ‘Effie,’ Ms. Thompson neither had access to, nor copied from any version of ‘The Countess.’ Rather, she applied her own creative imagination to well-known facts of history and biography and produced a strikingly original screenplay.” It asks the court to find that her screenplay “does not infringe any copyright which Murphy may claim.”

But Murphy says the script “follows the exact time frame, has an identical tone and contains plot elements and character developments directly traceable to ‘The Countess.’ I met with Emma to try and resolve the situation. She claims she never saw the screenplay I sent through a mutual friend. I tried to settle it without going to court, but they contradict themselves constantly.”

U.S. Copyright law is quite explicit that the making of what are called “derivative works” — works based or derived from another copyrighted work — is the exclusive province of the owner of the original work. This is true even though the making of these new works is a highly creative process. If you write a story using settings or characters from somebody else’s work, you need that author’s permission.

A rep for Thompson, who has teamed up with former Merchant Ivory president Donald Rosenfeld to create her company, Effie LLC, was not available for comment. A lawyer for Effie LLC declined to comment.

The New York Post Contributed to this article.

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