Disney TV took the Mickey out of me

Crime author says makers of Oscar Pistorius movie stole his work.

Best-selling South African true crime writer Nick van der Leek has accused the US makers of a television film, Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer, of “stealing” most of their script from material he has written about the murderer and his victim.

 True crime author Nick van der Leek

Van der Leek has penned a number of articles and books on the disgraced Paralympian and his relationship with model Reeva Steenkamp, whom Pistorius shot dead on Valentine’s Day in 2013.

Van der Leek is taking on the Disney-owned A&E Networks, along with another Disney subsidiary, Lifetime TV, which aired the movie for the first time in November last year. The credits list Amber Benson as scriptwriter of the film, which was produced by Eric Tomosunas and Swirl Films.

“The movie quite evidently used my books, particularly Resurrection and Revelations as their script” says Van der Leek. “I have found at least 305 copyright infringements by the moviemakers, averaging one every 15 seconds, yet the books are not credited at all in the film.

“I have studied the film, second-by-second. For me, the biggest infringement is that they’ve used our belief in and focus on the premeditated murder angle. Nobody else has argued this and creatively assembled and arranged the necessary evidence as a convincing human drama, as I did in my book Revelations,” Van der Leek told Noseweek.

“What it amounts to is that they’ve used very detailed research – which is available but not in one place – and creatively assembled it as a dramatic narrative. You would have to do what we did to get hold of it all.”

A scene from TV movie Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer

Van der Leek has long collaborated closely with well-known Los Angeles true crime author Lisa Wilson (aka trial blogger Juror13) who made her research material available exclusively to him for his Resurrection and Revelations books, published in July and August of 2014 respectively. These followed Reeva in her own Words, as well as Recidivist Acts, both published in June 2014.

Van der Leek has had over 70 narratives published on Amazon between 2014 and 2017. Four became Amazon best sellers. His blog, www.nickvanderleek.com has, in the past, been rated one of the top 20 News and Politics blogs in South Africa.

The filmmakers acknowledge they made use of the books to script their movie, but deny infringing copyright. They say they will only acknowledge the authors in the film’s credits on condition they now license their script to the moviemaker – free of charge.

Van der Leek first lodged a copyright claim in November last year, soon after the film’s release. A&E Network replied in December saying they were willing to credit him and Wilson in the film credits and online, but then sent them a licensing contract to sign – and offered no payment.

“We believe we have a right to the customary 1.4% of the $3 million production budget, which should give us about R300,000,” he said.

Currently, there is an impasse in the negotiations between him and A&E Networks. “They’re still selling their product on pay-per-view sites without crediting our work,” said Van der Leek.

In January, the company wrote to Van der Leek claiming that “most” of the information used in the movie was already in the public domain.

Says Van der Leek: “We argue that ours is the only published narrative like this. Having been friends with Reeva Steenkamp on Facebook, I kept waiting for her story to come out. I felt that her story was being left out by the media, the court and her family, and that remained the case throughout. I decided I would let her voice be heard.”

Van der Leek started off writing a 12,000-word article entitled “Reeva in her own Words”, based on all he could glean about her modelling career and her previous relationships. This was published as an Amazon book in June 2014. He then wrote three more books on the Pistorius/Steenkamp saga: Recidivist Acts, Resurrection and Revelations. “In Revelations, I put the motive and the method, the psychology and the forensics together… it was an entirely new narrative.”

Van der Leek had been working with Lisa Wilson for five years. “She knew how to get hold of court records and all sorts of other information. We worked together, with me as narrator and Lisa as the researcher. We did a lot of work on Reeva’s perspective, including her insecurities and financial difficulties and how she saw Oscar. We put all this information together and interpreted it. We are the only people who have done that. It isn’t out there except in our work. That is what the movie is based on.”

After watching the movie in early November, he and Wilson discussed their concerns. “We agreed that it definitely came from our work,” said Van der Leek. That same day he sent a copyright infringement notice listing all the similarities in their work, to Christian Palmieri, A&E’s agent for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). For starters, he asked for Lisa Wilson to be credited for her research.

Van der Leek claims the movie’s website also infringes Wilson’s copyright when it says: “Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer provides an inside look at the events leading up to Reeva’s killing, the cracks that formed in the relationship between Oscar and Reeva, as well as the courtroom drama that followed, revealing what happened on that tragic night.”

“This is also the precise premise of Resurrection and Revelations,” Van der Leek wrote. “In addition, various details about the crime scene dramatised in Blade Runner Killer are only found in Lisa’s blog and in the above-named narratives.

Some of those he listed:

• an argument on the night of the murder [not part of the trial narrative]

• the air gun assault on the bedroom door and how it played out [not part of the trial narrative]

• the contracts found on Pistorius’s dining room table when he arrived home on February 13 [not part of the trial narrative]

• Oscar’s cell phone playing a key part in what triggered the crime at 01:55 [not part of the trial narrative]

• the relationship dynamic between Oscar and Reeva, in terms of the psychology and motives of both, as well as how ‘cracks’ formed and came to a head on the night of the murder. (Our narratives are the only ones which linked the WhatsApp communications directly to a motive, as well as how these played into the events of February 13 and 14.)

Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar

• the insights into Reeva Steen-kamp’s relationship and commitment to her management agency, Capacity Relations, who were of the view that Oscar’s “brand” was not a good fit with Reeva’s brand [not part of the trial narrative, nor any other narrative]

• the nuances of Oscar Pistorius’s narcissism and double standards within his relationship with Reeva Steenkamp

• Reeva’s Facebook posts are still only visible to her friends while she was alive, and our research was the first to definitively convert her social media into a narrative, and tie it into motive and the relationship dynamic that flowed from those.

On 21 December last year, Van der Leek got a response from Beth Goldman, Content and Production Counsel, Legal and Business Affairs at A&E Networks, attaching a research licence agreement for them to sign, but offering no payment. It would grant the producers the right to use the material from the writers’ research, books and blogs and to edit, rearrange and/or change the material, along with a commitment to credit Lisa Wilson for her research.

Van der Leek’s objections were met with another email from Goldman on 19 January in which she dismissed his claims to be credited as being “without merit”.

“Once again, although we are under no legal obligation to do so, we are willing to accommodate Lisa’s, and now your, request for a credit on the website and in the film. In exchange we ask that you provide the signed document to us or provide comments, if there are portions that you feel you would like to revise. If you do not want the credit, that is of course fine, just let us know. If you prefer, you can refer your legal counsel to us to discuss further.”

In his most recent letter to Goldman, Van der Leek  insisted: “There are portions of your licence agreement in breach of our rights as authors, and are in need of revision. As agreed, both authors should be credited immediately as per industry standards.

“On the advice of legal counsel we have already compiled a detailed affidavit which shows and proves precisely the degree and nature of these infringements. In the first 90 seconds of dialogue, 16 separate infringements from our three copyrighted narratives and Lisa’s research have been identified, numerated and highlighted, averaging one infringement every five seconds. These infringements have been colour coded, to make the degree of these breaches appreciable at a glance.

“The trial narrative [“matters of public record”] of the film, cited in your email, comprises less than 5% of the total running time. The premise of your film, and thus the bulk of your film, like our narrative, is based on subjective interpretations and insights that fall outside of the public record… your request for ‘licensing’ in the context of your having dismissed our claims to copyright as being ‘without merit’, and ‘source material not copyrighted’ makes no sense.

“In order for our work to be licensed and sub-licensed, the licence should be purchased properly, the way any script is purchased and licensed on the open market. We submit that fair value for licensing be set at the industry standard, at 1.4% of the allocated budget, payable immediately.

“In terms of damages suffered for failures of attribution between 8 November to the present date, a fixed sum of $45,000 [for November, December and January], payable immediately and/or an option on other works, should be arranged in lieu of (a) not having profited from the proper attribution in one’s own works, or from (b) the sales-driving PR surrounding the initiative.

Van der Leek, who in his biography  describes himself as a “true crime maestro”, has written books on a number of high-profile international crimes including the 1996 murder of six-year-old Boulder, Colorado child-beauty-queen JonBenét Ramsay; four-year-old Madeleine McCann who vanished from her bed in a holiday apartment in the Algarve, Portugal; Amanda Knox, who was acquitted of murdering her housemate, Meredith Kercher in Italy in 2007; and the case of O J Simpson among others. In South Africa, he has also written about the Van Breda family murders in their De Zalze, Stellenbosch home.

“What’s different in my work, as compared with the dry reporting of lawyers or journalists, is that I base it on a complete archive. I also focus on the psychology involved. I work with an enormous archive of data, get all the information in one place – from the court records, the media record, the social media and a whole range of other sources – and find information that’s less well known. I even look at archived weather patterns, Google Maps and other things that one might not think are important but which build a mosaic.

“You start seeing inconsistencies and lies. You find patterns in the cloud and that’s how you figure it out. I come in with the benefit of hindsight.

“There’s often a public relations narrative about a case. For instance, Oscar’s PR narrative is that he’s always been anxious and afraid, and is a broken man. You have to counter that.”

A US law firm concurs that Van der Leek’s copyright claims relating to Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer, have merit and has offered to litigate against the Disney company on his behalf.

Van der Leek’s Twitter handle is @HiRezLife.

Inspired by true crime

Writing true crime is really about understanding human psychology better, especially the hidden dimension, says Nick van der Leek. “What drives people to do what they do? What motivates us? It’s about understanding ourselves better, and motives we might otherwise not see, or not initially understand.

“I guess I’m very detail-oriented. I get frustrated with the lack of clarity, and the lack of proper analysis in the media. Dedicated true crime writing allows one to really get one’s teeth into a project, spend time with it, and break down the Everest of case files with today’s digital tools. It’s a fun way of adding to the narratives already out there, obviously with a little artistic licence thrown in.”

To find out what he thinks happened to Madeleine McCann, and to JonBenét Ramsay, you’ll have to read his online books.

Some of his observations on the Van Breda case: “Sibling rivalry with his high-achieving brother. Because of his key identifying trait – his epilepsy – he was essentially bogged down, locked out of the game (by his medication) for his own good at a critical time – which made him angry and resentful of his high-achieving family. At the time of the murders he didn’t even have a car. How many 20 year olds with multimillionaire parents do you know that don’t have a car?”

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