It’s been said that America is a litigious society, and Judge Judy might agree. But there has long been a pervasive myth that courts are bogged down with frivolous lawsuits even though, statistically speaking, relatively few lawsuits actually meet the criteria of frivolous. That may be because, in between the conception and execution, some people realize their lawsuits are terrible ideas. Like these 10 cases of high-profile lawsuit threats that range from almost reasonable to utterly preposterous.
10. George Lucas’ Lawyers Threatened to Sue Mad Magazine
When it comes to copyright infringement, the lawyers of the world have crept out of the woodwork in the internet age to destroy any and all potential violators. But pre-internet things were a little different. For starters, it was harder to even violate a copyright. What were you going to do, write your own Star Wars parody? Well, if you were working at Mad Magazine in 1980, then yeah.
Lawyers for George Lucas contacted Mad, artist Mort Drucker, and writer Dick DeBartolo, for their parody of The Empire Strikes Back called The Empire Strikes Out. They sent a cease and desist letter demanding the magazine recall all the published issues. Today, such a letter would be potentially terrifying with the power of Disney behind it, but even back then, it would have been at least a little intimidating if not for another letter that DeBartolo had received earlier.
The earlier letter was from George Lucas himself, who had seen the parody in the magazine and liked it so much he wrote the team to praise them and request some of the original art. They wrote back to his lawyers, pointing out that their employer really enjoyed it and attached a copy of Lucas’ letter. Unsurprisingly, no further legal action was pursued.
9. Disney Threatened to Sue Day Cares
Speaking of Disney, the House of Mouse has a bad habit of showing up on the wrong side of legal issues and one of their most egregious Goliath vs. David cases was when they decided to pursue legal action against some Florida day cares. You know, the places where people take care of children all day?
Back in 1989, the company learned that three separate child care facilities had brazenly painted Disney copyrighted characters on their walls. Apparently working from a position that no child shall receive joy from their intellectual property without paying each and every day, though the official position was that they feared people would think Disney had somehow sponsored the schools. The day cares were given time to remove the images before any legal action was taken, which they did. This also gave Universal the opportunity to swoop in and replace the lost artwork with images of their characters like Woody Woodpecker, the Flintstones, and other Hanna-Barbera characters owned by the company, making them look like heroes. And yes, Disney was legally right in their claims, but the PR hit couldn’t have done them any favors.
8. Producers of Witches of Eastwick Threatened to Sue Susan Sarandon if She Didn’t Learn the Cello
Witches of Eastwick came out in 1987 and has become something of a cult classic. In the film, Susan Sarandon plays one of three women that Jack Nicholson’s character, who is just a little bit demonic in nature, takes a shine to. Years after its release, in 2020, Sarandon was speaking before an Eastwick-themed event when she let loose a little dirt from the film’s production.
Aside from claiming her role had been stolen by Cher just before production began, she also learned she’d need to learn how to play the cello for her new role. She had no idea how to play the cello. And you’d think maybe she could fake it for the film but instead the producers threatened to sue her if she didn’t learn. Since her character does have a very memorable cello scene in the film, it’s safe to say she got the job done.
7. Microsoft Threatened a Teenager Named Mike Rowe
For the quarter that ended on March 31, 2022, Microsoft earned $49.36 billion. The company is doing pretty well, financially speaking. And maybe they make all that money because they’re almost bafflingly cheap when it comes to conducting business, as witnessed by their threatened lawsuit against a Canadian teenager.
Seventeen-year-old Mike Rowe registered a website called MikeRoweSoft.com, clearly a fun little joke based on his own name. Microsoft does not like jokes. In early 2004, they threatened the teen with legal action. They requested he transfer the domain to them and, in exchange, they would pay him $10. That’s one zero, or the price he paid to register the domain name at the time.
Rowe countered with an offer for $10,000, saying he was just starting his own graphic design business and he’d spent a lot of time working on the website he was using. Microsoft’s lawyers replied with a 25-page letter accusing him of cyber squatting and requesting an admission of guilt, among other things.
The story got huge media attention and made Microsoft look ridiculous. Microsoft doubled down, accusing him of drawing things out for a bigger payday. They ended up backtracking later, saying they “took it too seriously.” As for Mike, he ended up giving up the domain, but not for $10 or $10,000. He got an Xbox.
6. Uri Geller Threatened to Sue Nintendo Over Pokemon
Uri Geller was famously exposed on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson for being unable to live up to his claimed psychic abilities. Since then he’s been notoriously prickly about attacks on his person, so much so that he threatened to sue Nintendo over a Pokemon character in the year 2000.
The character, Kadabra, can bend spoons. Uri Geller famously claimed to bend spoons with his mind, though he couldn’t in front of Johnny Carson with spoons he hadn’t had access to ahead of time. Called Yungerer in Japan, Geller believed this was a clear reference to him.
Nintendo axed the character, and the lawsuit was later dismissed. It wouldn’t be until 2020 when Geller finally decided maybe he’d overreacted and, based on letters he received from fans, allowed Nintendo to go ahead and use the character again.
5. ASCAP Threatened to Sue the Girl Scouts
When Girl Scouts aren’t busy selling you addictive cookies, they’re doing things like making crafts, hiking, camping, and good deeds for the community. But let’s backtrack a second to the camping part. What goes along with camping? Marshmallows, tents and camp songs. And that right there is a lawsuit, or it almost was.
Back in the mid-’90s, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, or ASCAP, had a beef with camp songs in the most embarrassing way. The organization is supposed to be a non-profit that works to protect the rights of singers and musicians by licensing the rights to members’ music for public performances. This means a singer gets paid when the radio plays one of their songs. They handle billions of dollars this way.
Despite what sounds like good work that they do, the organization has been accused of obnoxiously chasing every copyright dollar it can find. In 1995, they told the American Camping Association they planned to charge for music performed at their camps because they are public performances. This arguably included campfire songs. The association told its members, including about potential fines if a $250 fee wasn’t paid. Their members included Girl Scouts.
The PR nightmare was swift and brutal. ASCAP was quick to say they never threatened the Girl Scouts, which was sort of true but sort of not. In the end, they relented and camp songs were free once more.
4. Fyre Festival Threatened to Sue Critics
In 2017, the Fyre Festival was quite the debacle. Advertised as a massive music festival, it turned out to mostly be a fraud. Attendees paid thousands of dollars a piece for luxury accommodations and gourmet food on a tropical island. What they got were repurposed tents, no festival, poor quality food and many were stranded with no power and little food and water.
The organizer ended up getting six years in prison plus an order to pay back millions, though he’s already out of prison now. Remarkably, while the legal cases were ongoing, McFarland and his co-organizer, rapper Ja Rule, were threatening critics with their own lawsuits. They claimed the people using social media to trash the festival were inciting civil unrest. Despite the threat, it didn’t seem to work.
3. Harrods Department Store Threatened a New Zealand Restaurant
Most of us haven’t heard of the New Zealand town called Otorohanga, but you know who has? Lawyers for Harrods Department Store in the UK. All thanks to their would-be lawsuit from 1986.
The town, which has a current population of just over 3,000, was also home to Harrods Restaurant, owned by resident Henry Harrod, who named the place after himself. Despite being a tiny business in a tiny town, the owner of one of the world’s most famous department stores threatened to sue if the name wasn’t changed.
The problem with a lawsuit like this is that you can’t really try to strong arm a small New Zealand town. Rather than acquiesce, the entire town briefly changed its name to Harrodsville and almost every single business in town changed its name to Harrods as well. This gathered enough international media attention that it shamed the owners of the department store into dropping the suit.
You can actually visit the town’s Facebook page and read conversations between locals reminiscing over the time it happened
2. FOX News Threatened to Sue The Simpsons (on Fox)
The Simpsons has been on TV since 1989. That’s over thirty years, and in that entire time it has aired on FOX, which is very important to remember when you get deeper into this story. Back in 2003, Simpsons creator Matt Groening spoke about how the show was threatened with a lawsuit for including a joke news ticker in an episode. The would-be victim? FOX News Channel.
On the cartoon, the news ticker on FOX News was scrolling a number of silly headlines meant to mock the notoriously anti-Democrat channel, including lines like “Do Democrats cause cancer?” It’s not 100% clear what violation FOX News felt was happening or what crime they had fallen victim to, but, as Groening pointed out, the cartoon had the upper hand. In order for FOX News to sue FOX Entertainment, it would basically require the head of the company, Rupert Murdoch, to pay to sue himself. So, yeah. There was no lawsuit.
1. Parents of Kids Who Trashed A House Threatened to Sue the Victim
No one likes people who demonstrate a sense of entitlement, but this story goes to a new level. NFL player Brian Holloway used to have a vacation home. Over the Labor Day weekend of 2013, about 300 local teens broke into the empty house to throw a party. They caused about $20,000 worth of damages.
Teens being teens, they organized and celebrated a lot of the party on social media. That included posting pictures of themselves in the home. So Holloway did what anyone trying to figure out who trashed his house would do: he tracked down the kids based on the pictures they took to identify them for the police. He posted them on his own website, asking for help to identify the culprits.
He ended up collecting 170 tweets and photos. This rubbed the parents of some of the children involved the wrong way and they actually threatened to sue Holloway for posting their kids’ photos; the ones the kids posted depicting themselves committing crimes to social media for the whole world to see.
Several teens ended up being charged and there is no evidence the lawsuits from the offended parents ever went anywhere.