[Mediapolitics] The Billion-Dollar Myth
amcgee at virtualidentity.org
Thu Aug 4 14:57:45 PDT 2005
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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