Monday, October 30, 2017

Ghosts and the Law

The courtroom is generally an area where facts are all that matter, and where anything that cannot be proven may as well not exist. This might lead one to the conclusion that the courts are largely silent on the topic of ghosts and the paranormal, but that assumption would be incorrect. This post will briefly discuss some legal cases revolving around the legal treatment of ghosts.

The most famous ghost-related case is Stambovsky v. Ackley. A woman named Helen Ackley lived in a house that she swore was haunted. She reported on paranormal incidents to local and national publications. Ackley decided to sell the house to a man from out of town named Jeffrey Stambovsky, but neither she nor her realtor disclosed the alleged haunting. When Stambovsky learned of the haunting, he attempted to withdraw from the agreement and sued Ackley.

The New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division ultimately found in favor of Stambovsky, ruling that the house was haunted as a matter of law. While the house may or may not have been haunted, the fact that Ackley had publicly treated the house as though it had been haunted meant that she was required to disclose the house's condition. While the decision is most famous for its ruling, the opinion became known as the "Ghostbusters Ruling" thanks to its numerous references to ghosts and spooky turns of phrase.

An ongoing copyright case addresses the existence of ghosts more directly. Horror fans might be familiar with Warner Bros.' Conjuring films. This franchise, which currently consists of four films, is based on the case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. The couple were involved with a number of high profile allegedly supernatural occurrences, including a murder trial where the defendant pled not guilty by reason of demonic possession. Gerald Brittle, the author of the Warren biography The Demonologist, has filed a nearly one billion dollar lawsuit claiming that the franchise infringes on his exclusive rights to the Warrens' stories. 

The chain of ownership is a bit complicated, but one of the core issues in the case is whether the Warrens' case files were factual or not. Copyright law protects original works of authorship. Facts are in the public domain, and are therefore not generally protected by copyright. However, the compilation, arrangement, and selection of facts- those elements of a historical account that require creativity from the author beyond recitation of events- are protected through copyright law. You can learn more about the nuances of copyright in this FAQ from the U.S. Copyright Office

Brittle argues that the cases that inspired both the book and the films did not occur. In essence, the incidents described by the Warrens were independent works of authorship, since they reflected the creative processes of the investigators rather than actual facts. U.S. District Court Judge John Gibney Jr. has declined to explore this argument at this stage in the process, and has allowed the case to move forward with a trial date in April of 2018. You can read more about the trial in this piece from The Hollywood Reporter
As you can see, the law is an even scarier subject than you might think!

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