[Mediapolitics] The Billion-Dollar Myth

Art McGee amcgee at virtualidentity.org
Thu Aug 4 14:57:45 PDT 2005


http://www.latimes.com/features/printedition/magazine/la-tm-mothermatrix31jul31,1,6817238.story

Los Angeles Times

July 31, 2005

The Billion-Dollar Myth

The 'Matrix' movies portray a frightening alternate reality. 
When a writer sued the movies' creators for stealing her 
ideas, she inadvertently exposed another reality -- a racial 
one -- that's no less troubling.

By Kemp Powers

Sophia Stewart didn't attend her June 13 hearing at the U.S. 
federal court building in downtown Los Angeles. She saw the 
proceeding as a minor hurdle on the way to an anticipated 
July 12 trial in her copyright infringement suit against 
directors Andy and Larry Wachowski, James Cameron and other 
defendants -- a trial she imagined would be "one of the 
largest suits for damages in the history of the film 
industry."

Her lawsuit claimed that the lucrative "Matrix" and 
"Terminator" film franchises were based on her ideas. Last 
month's request by the defendants to dismiss the case was an 
act of desperation, Stewart believed, because her proof of 
theft was indisputable. Stewart had attracted many 
supporters (mostly African American, who agreed that 
Hollywood had ripped her off) and detractors who question 
both the validity of her claims and her sanity ever since 
she began trying to rally support for her case in 2003. She 
claimed that she would have "big surprises" for the judge 
and jury, as well as for all of the naysayers, when her case 
finally went to trial.

Unfortunately, Judge Margaret Morrow wasn't interested in 
surprises. In her 53-page ruling, Morrow dismissed Stewart's 
case, noting that Stewart and her attorneys had not entered 
any evidence to bolster the key claims in her suit or 
demonstrated any striking similarity between her work and 
the accused directors' films. Stewart says she is hiring 
additional attorneys and is asking the court to reconsider 
that decision, but earlier this summer, in a nearly empty 
courtroom 790 of the Roybal Federal Building, Stewart's case 
apparently ended with a whimper.

But as in the "Matrix" movies, there's an alternate reality 
to this story that says a lot about the continuing racial 
divide between a mistrusting black America and the 
mainstream media. Stewart's courtroom defeat stands in 
bizarre contrast to what many of her fellow African 
Americans hold true, or want to believe happened as a result 
of her lawsuit.

In that alternate reality -- created by Internet chain 
letters, radio stations and reputable community newspapers, 
and still flourishing on the World Wide Web -- people 
sincerely believe that Stewart won her lawsuit last fall, 
and that she now is the wealthiest African American in the 
country, thanks to a record multibillion-dollar award. Her 
supposed settlement has been hailed as a legendary 
achievement in copyright infringement law, and a major 
moment in African American history. People also think that 
word of her victory has been suppressed as the result of one 
of the most sophisticated media conspiracies in history -- 
even though none of that is true.

The Wachowski brothers' professional resume was limited 
prior to "the Matrix"; they had written the screenplay for 
the lackluster 1995 Sylvester Stallone action film 
"Assassins," and in 1996 had made their directing debut with 
the low-budget noir crime flick "Bound." To hear Stewart 
tell it, that lack of experience suggests fraud.

"I'm the kind of master writer that comes once upon this 
Earth," Stewart says by phone from her Las Vegas home a week 
before the June 13 court hearing. "You don't go from [doing] 
a mediocre movie to a work of genius like 'The Matrix.' "

The Bronx, N.Y., native makes her living doing paralegal 
work and tax preparation. She is divorced and has two adult 
children, though she won't reveal her age, explaining that 
she doesn't believe in pagan rituals and refuses to 
celebrate holidays or birthdays. "It's all lies and 
illusions," she says. "We're timeless and ageless." She adds 
that her spiritual attitude forms the basis for the wise 
Oracle character in the "Matrix" films: "The Oracle is me. I 
wrote myself into my work."

In 1983, she says, she completed a science fiction tale 
titled "The Third Eye," which she copyrighted the following 
year. Stewart says the as-yet unpublished work -- submitted 
as part of the fact-finding phase of her case -- totals 120 
pages, including a screen treatment, a 47-page version of 
the manuscript and a 29-page "original manuscript" with 
additional pages containing a synopsis, character analyses, 
illustrations and a table of contents. In 1986, she says, 
she saw an advertisement posted in a national magazine by 
the Wachowski brothers soliciting science fiction 
manuscripts to make into comic books and she sent them all 
of her materials for "The Third Eye," including a copy of 
her original manuscript. "My dream was to have my work seen 
as a movie and a comic book," she says.

Stewart says she never heard from the Wachowskis, and never 
had her materials returned. Morrow's ruling notes, however, 
that Stewart did not produce the ad as evidence. In denying 
that they ever placed such an ad, the Wachowskis said that, 
in 1986, Andy was just 18 and brother Larry was a 
21-year-old college student.

Flash forward to the March 1999 theatrical release of "The 
Matrix." Stewart, then living in Salt Lake City, went with a 
friend to see the film. "I said to myself, 'I wrote this,' " 
she recalls, saying she recognized themes and characters 
from "The Third Eye" in the film. In June 1999, she says, 
she filed a written complaint with the FBI, charging that a 
copyright crime had taken place. In April 2003, acting as 
her own attorney, Stewart filed a lawsuit against a host of 
defendants, including the Wachowskis, "Terminator" director 
James Cameron, producers Gale Anne Hurd and Joel Silver, 
20th Century Fox and Warner Bros., accusing them of 
copyright infringement and of violating Racketeer Influenced 
and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) laws, which were created in 
1970 to combat organized criminal entities.

Not long after that, her story began to take a strange turn. 
Stewart produced and circulated a news release, trying to 
rally support for her copyright case by recounting her 
claims and request for damages. The mainstream media 
response was tepid, at best. However, one newspaper did find 
her story quite interesting.

On Oct. 28, the Salt Lake Community College's Globe ran an 
article on its website with the audacious headline " 'Mother 
of the Matrix' Victorious." Written by a second-year 
communications student, the article was among the first on 
the Web to reveal aspects of Stewart's story. Unfortunately, 
it also was rife with errors, stating among other things 
that Stewart had won her case (she hadn't) and that she was 
about to receive one of the biggest payoffs in Hollywood 
history (she wasn't). The story also questioned why the case 
had received no media coverage, and quoted Stewart's claim 
on a website that Warner Bros. had been suppressing coverage 
of her case for years because AOL Time Warner "owns 95 
percent of the media ... They are not going to report on 
themselves." Among the publications and businesses she 
claimed the company owned: the New York Times, the Los 
Angeles Times, Newsweek magazine and DreamWorks. In fact, 
AOL Time Warner doesn't own any of them.

It didn't take long for some mistakes to get the attention 
of Quentin Wells, the manager of the SLCC Student Media 
Center, which produces the Globe. "My son, who is a 
copyright attorney, read the article and said, 'This can't 
be right,' " Wells says. After approaching Stewart and 
checking the information in the piece, Wells discovered that 
Stewart's supposed "victory" was nothing more than a 
successful defense against an early motion to have her case 
dismissed. "It was an error [by] the writer," says Wells. 
"She had misinterpreted what Stewart had said."

Within a week, the Globe added a correction, but at the end 
of the Web version of the story. Yet a few weeks later, 
Wells noticed that the Globe website's server traffic had 
exploded from 14,500 hits a month to more than 640,000. "I 
contacted our [Internet] provider and told him that his 
counter must be broken."

It wasn't, and almost all of the new traffic was linking to 
the Sophia Stewart story. Also, in the brief time that the 
Globe story was uncorrected on the website, it had been 
copied and circulated around the Internet through mailing 
lists. Several Internet blogs then had linked to the story, 
bringing a steady stream of visitors to the site. The mythos 
of Stewart's victory continued to grow despite the 
correction.

The Globe ran a follow-up story this January, which 
continued to stoke conspiracy beliefs by stating as fact 
Stewart's assertion that "Warner Bros. and the other 
defendants in the case have also sought, with almost 
complete success, to prevent any publicity regarding the 
suit from appearing in any national or even local media. The 
result has been an almost total news blackout about the 
matter."

Soon, both Globe articles were reappearing almost verbatim 
on news websites such as Manhunt.com and continuing to make 
the rounds on mailing lists, sometimes with new bylines. 
Unlike the original stories, these reprints never included 
the correction stating that Stewart hadn't won her case. 
Radio hosts and callers on radio stations such as Hot 97 in 
New York City and KPFA's Hard Knock Radio in Berkeley also 
were discussing the Stewart case. The story began to appear 
in African American community newspapers such as the 
Westside Gazette in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the Columbus 
Times in Georgia. Most of those articles echoed the bad 
information in the original Globe piece. By April, a vast 
number of African Americans had read or heard some erroneous 
version of the Sophia Stewart story.

Such mistakes have long proliferated in American ethnic 
communities, but the Internet has added to their speed and 
potency. When the athletic footwear rage of the 1980s led to 
violence and deaths among urban kids, rumors surfaced in the 
African American community that one major manufacturer was 
owned by South Africans, and its profits were being used to 
support apartheid. After a particular brand of Mexican beer 
got a foothold in the U.S. market in the 1980s, rumors that 
Mexican workers were urinating in it were rampant in the 
western U.S. In her 1994 book "I Heard It Through the 
Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture," UC Davis 
professor Patricia Turner explains that the symbolic quality 
of some stories often is more important to certain groups 
than whether those stories are true. Stewart's story seemed 
particularly credible because she is a real person who filed 
a real case. "Sophia Stewart is David against Goliath," says 
Turner, and she represents African Americans who have been 
victimized by corporations.

Still, the tide is slowly turning. Essence, a 
million-subscriber magazine aimed at an African American 
audience, had never published a story on Sophia Stewart. But 
in its May issue it asked readers to hold off on repeating 
claims of Stewart's victory, and it pointed out that the 
case was not scheduled for trial until July. Some Internet 
chatter in recent months has become less sympathetic toward 
Stewart and her claims, with one fellow writer claiming "my 
loony detector alarms started going off" as he read more 
about her case.

That hasn't stopped columnists at many African American 
newspapers and news sites from continuing to speculate. 
Manhunt.com content manager Tamara Harris said the erroneous 
version of Stewart's story is appealing because it 
"vindicates all of the black artists going through this."

Not everyone believed the rumors. "The first time I saw it, 
I dismissed it," says Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, a technology 
columnist at the Star, a 60,000-circulation daily that 
serves Chicago's largely black southern suburbs. "But then, 
even though it sounded unbelievable to me at first, I didn't 
want to completely discount it until I saw evidence that it 
wasn't true."

Despite the wealth of misinformation circulating on the 
Internet, finding out the status of the case is as easy as 
making a telephone call. Stewart makes herself available to 
answer media questions, and a website called 
http://www.Daghettotymz.com lists her contact information 
and offers downloadable files of court documents. The site 
is the first hit when Stewart's name is Googled.

Yet Bobby Henry Sr., publisher of the Westside Gazette in 
Florida, remained confused recently when told about the 
case's status. "She didn't win?" Henry asked. "I'm shocked, 
because her having already won is all out there. It was even 
on the Tom Joyner [radio] show that she won." 
Representatives of the nationally syndicated Joyner program 
say they haven't written about Stewart on the show's site, 
and couldn't pinpoint when or if Stewart was mentioned on 
the air.

Dr. Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC's School 
of Cinema-Television, says the Stewart case speaks to 
African Americans' deep distrust of the media. "A lot of 
people, regardless of race, continue to have very 
unsophisticated views of the media," said Boyd. "And many 
African Americans in particular are still very distrustful 
of the media." That distrust comes from a history of being 
either negatively portrayed or completely ignored by the 
press.

Bruce Isaacs of Wyman & Isaacs, the attorney representing 
the defendants in the Stewart case, says a media conspiracy 
is not the reason the case has seen little coverage. "The 
question shouldn't be why hasn't the media covered this 
case, it should be why would the media cover this case?" 
says Isaacs. "It's a run-of-the-mill copyright case, and I 
think the judge clearly addressed the case's merits in her 
ruling."

As for Stewart, she still believes that AOL Time Warner is 
suppressing her struggle -- "Why am I not on 'Larry King 
Live' or 'Oprah'? " she wonders -- and remains determined to 
make the rumor into a reality. After the judge dismissed the 
case, Stewart was upbeat. If Morrow won't reconsider her 
decision, Stewart says she will appeal the judge's decision 
to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and to the Supreme 
Court, if necessary. "And they'll rule in my favor," says 
Stewart. "So tell everybody that it's not over until the fat 
lady sings, and she hasn't sung yet."

---

Kemp Powers is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

Copyright (c) 2005 Los Angeles. All Rights Reserved.


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