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The Amistad case: 'Outright Plagiarism' or 'Who Owns History?'

CASE UPDATE: February 12, 1998

On Monday, February 9, plaintiff Barbara Chase-Riboud settled with Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks SKG. Chase-Riboud complimented Dreamworks for their film, Amistad and, as part of the settlemnt, dropped her plagiarism suit against the studio. It was the film premiere that almost didn't happen.

On Friday, December 12th, Dreamworks latest movie, Amistad, opened in major markets nationwide. Four days earlier, a federal court in Los Angeles denied a motion to enjoin the film, pending a trial to determine whether or not characters, scenes, and other aspects of Amistad were illegally copied from the 1988 book, Echo of Lions.

Although the preliminary injunction motion was denied, the lawsuit is still very much alive. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of Los Angeles is expected to decide the case in 1998.

Dramatis personae

On December 12, the latest movie from Dreamworks SKG opened nationwide. Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg, is based on an actual 1839 revolt by Africans aboard a Spanish slave ship.

Barbara Chase-Riboud is a Kafka Award and Carl Sandburg-award winning sculptor, poet, and author. Ms. Chase-Riboud is suing Dreamworks. She claims that the movie uses characters, incidents, and relationships from her 1988 book, Echo of Lions.

Ms. Chase-Riboud sued Dreamworks in federal court for $10 million. On December 8, the U.S. district court for the Central District of California denied Ms. Chase-Riboud's motion for a preliminary injunction. If the court had granted her motion, Amistad might have been prevented from opening until the court issued a final verdict in the case.

160 years and two court cases

The original Amistad revolt led to a U.S. Supreme Court case, in 1841. Two months after the Africans escaped their chains and killed most of the Spanish, the boat was found off the coast of New York. The Supreme Court considered the question of whether the Africans should be given their freedom in America or sold into slavery.

Former U.S. President John Quincy Adams argued before the Supreme Court in favor of giving the Africans their freedom.

This site explores the historical and legal issues and characters involved in the two disputes arising out of the Amistad revolt.

See also LII's UNABOM legal issues site -- new December 22nd

New on Thursday, January 29th (new!)

New on Friday, January 23rd

New on Tuesday, January 13th

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Prepared by Michael Peil for the Legal Information Institute. Last edited 12 February 1998 at 12:26.