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Firm Sues Universal in a 'Twister' Tale of Tornadoes, Patents

Litigation: Reel EFX says the studio stole its trade secret for a special effect and plans to use it in a park attraction.

September 05, 1997|MARLA MATZER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Can you patent a tornado?

North Hollywood-based Reel EFX Inc. says it can, and in a lawsuit the company contends that Universal Studios stole it.

The company, which specializes in faux weather effects for the entertainment business, is suing Universal and parent company MCA Inc. for the alleged theft of a fake tornado. Universal plans to use it for a "Twister" theme park attraction at Universal Studios Florida, due to open next year.

Reel EFX has a patent pending for a method of generating a "tornado" that can reach heights up to 40 feet. The system uses common components, including a modified helicopter rotor and a high-powered engine.

The 15-year-old company--specializing in physical, rather than computerized, effects for commercials, films and videos--seeks unspecified damages for alleged breach of written agreement and misappropriation of trade secrets.

Lawsuits alleging theft of ideas are commonplace in Hollywood, but typically stem from disputes over story ideas. Such cases are usually extremely hard to win; columnist Art Buchwald in 1994 won one of the few high-profile cases, against Paramount Pictures over the story for the film "Coming to America." Even then, Buchwald's award ($150,000 to him, $750,000 to his producing partner) was considered low by many observers.

Reel EFX's co-owner and vice president, Jim Gill, says his company won a $250,000 judgment several years ago in another trade-secret theft case, against a company started by a former Reel EFX employee. The company was found to have infringed on Reel EFX's copyright on a fog machine "that's pretty much become the industry standard," Gill says.

But when it comes to doing business with the studios, he says: "You need the jobs. You go in knowing they'll 'borrow' things from you."

On Sept. 16, at the first open hearing on the case, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge is expected to rule on whether Reel EFX must further respond to Universal's request that it detail exactly what trade secrets are at issue. They are only described broadly in the original complaint.

The suit contends that Universal entered into a two-way nondisclosure agreement with Reel EFX last year, when Universal was planning the "Twister" attraction. Reel EFX claims that after the company had demonstrated its patent-pending tornado several times, Universal broke off negotiations. The company then began planning a "substantially similar" setup at Universal Studios Florida utilizing information proprietary to Reel EFX, according to the complaint.

Ronald Guttman, a partner with Reel EFX's law firm of Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil & Shapiro, said Reel EFX can patent a process, even if it utilizes commonly available materials. "If I could take a battery and wire it into a car in such a way that it runs for 20 hours rather than 8 hours, I could patent that," Guttman says. "You can patent a system that involves putting common things together in a novel way."

Reel EFX has worked on television spots (but not actual attractions) for Universal Studios attractions such as "Waterworld" and "Earthquake." The company's tornado system was developed in part for a 1995 British television spot for Volvo.

Last week, Reel EFX added a message to its Web site (http://www.reelefx.com) asking others who believe Universal "may have stolen [their] ideas or acted in bad faith" to come forward to company executives or their attorneys. Neither Gill nor Guttman could comment on whether there has been any response to that request.

A Universal representative would say only that the company does not comment on pending litigation.

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