Emma Cline’s The Girls Didn’t Violate Ex’s Copyright, Judge Says

The judge did, however, allow accusations launched against Cline of hacking into her ex's email and bank account go forward.

Dust jacket from Emma Cline’s The Girls

A federal judge in San Francisco said Wednesday that he doesn’t think Emma Cline’s The Girls violated copyright laws, and that he’d probably throw out accusations from her ex-boyfriend that the best-seller appropriated his unpublished writings.

William H. Orrick III said that copyright violations require two things: copying someone’s work, and appropriating that material into another work. Cline’s ex, Chaz Reetz-Laiolo, was able to show that Cline copied phrases and scenes from some of his work, but not that she appropriated them. However, Orrick said he would some of Reetz-Laiolo’s computer-crime allegations, accusing Cline of hacking into his email and bank account, go forward.

Reetz-Laiolo claims that after seeing a draft of The Girls, and he discovered some 36 phrases, sentences and scenes nicked from his work, particularly a novel called All Sea. Some of these were short phrases: “her heavy rear,” “his penis bunched,” “the uncertain shape of a sleepy girl.” Others included a description of an elderly woman who took 14 pills a day, a mention of body brushing, and a handful of scenes, including one in which a father figure confronts a teen about stealing. Reetz-Laiolo says that those allegedly borrowed scenes infringe his copyright.

Reetz-Laiolo also says Cline couldn’t have seen the All Sea manuscript without hacking into his computer.

Cline argues in her motion to dismiss the suit that the two manuscripts aren’t at all similar. “Cline’s novel is a complex story of the inner emotional life of an adolescent girl juxtaposed against a background and characters loosely inspired by the notorious Manson Family murders,” according to her motion to dismiss the case. Reetz-Laiolo’s work, by comparison, “is a male coming-of-age story, set in the 1990s focusing on a teenage boy protagonist with a penchant for breaking and entering.”

Orrick agreed, saying, “besides that [the works] are coming-of age-stories, they vary significantly. They seem to be very different.”

Cline became an overnight literary star when she landed a $2 million, three-book deal with Random House in 2014, which included The Girls. Set in Sonoma and Marin counties in the 1960s, the story centers on a fictional version of the Manson Family, told from the perspective of the cult leader’s teen-girl followers.

Cline and Reetz-Laiolo met in the summer of 2009, when Cline was a 20-year-old Middlebury College student and Reetz-Laiolo was a 33-year-old tutor at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Soon they were dating, drawn together by shared literary ambitions, and Cline moved in with Reetz-Laiolo in Berkeley that December. They lived together until the fall of 2011, when Cline moved to New York for an MFA program at Columbia University. Their relationship fizzled out about six months, court documents said.

In Cline’s countersuit, filed in November, she says Reetz-Laiolo was “habitually unfaithful” and became violent and abusive toward her. He allegedly berated and belittled Cline, punched walls, smashed dishes, broke furniture and locked her out of the apartment several times. “He would fly into a rage and retaliate with emotional manipulation if she did not respond quickly enough to his communications,” the filing claims.

Cline also accuses Reetz-Laiolo of reading her emails, text messages, Facebook messages and personal journal. She says she discovered that Reetz-Laiolo was still sexually involved with his ex, Kristin Kiesel, in the summer of 2010, and that their trysts had exposed Cline to an STD. A few months later, Cline installed a free program called Refog to track what Reetz-Laiolo was typing when he borrowed her laptop, court documents say. She says she did it because she couldn’t trust him to be honest with her.

But Reetz-Laiolo, Keisel, and another plaintiff, Kari Bernard, say in their lawsuit that Cline’s use of the program went far beyond that. Cline was allegedly able to obtain email passwords from all three, because they borrowed her laptop at various times, and she used those passwords to access their email accounts on a regular basis.

Reetz-Laiolo claims Cline has a long history of snooping in people’s online accounts. She allegedly broke into her classmates’ accounts on Livejournal, as well as her parents’ email accounts.

Cline sold her laptop to Reetz-Laiolo in 2013, telling him she had “wiped” it. But the computer eventually became so sluggish that he had a computer-specialist friend take a look. They discovered the computer not been “wiped” — and that Refog had stuffed the hard drive with screenshots of Cline’s intrusions, according to the suit.

Before this discovery, the pair met for lunch in San Francisco in October 2014. Reetz-Laiolo says Cline “appeared upset” and “expressed concern that she had plagiarized significant parts and passages in The Girls from multiple sources, including notable published novels.” He says Cline asked him to read the novel and tell her whether he had concerns about any use she might have made of his work; he reportedly refused.

Cline, however, claims Reetz-Laiolo told her that he thought people would be interested in nude photos of Cline he’d hung onto after their breakup. He also reportedly said he planned to write a “tell-all” article about her. “Only when he had reduced Cline to sobbing in public did Reetz-Laiolo make an about-face, claiming he had been joking,” she says in her countersuit.

Cline’s defenses on the hacking claims are more technical. When she accessed the plaintiffs’ email accounts, it didn’t violate the Stored Communications Act because those accounts didn’t function as “backups” under the law, she argues. She also says she couldn’t have violated the Wiretap Act because she never intercepted anyone’s communications during the transmission process.

Orrick said he would let many of the hacking claims stand. Reetz-Laiolo, Kiesel and Bernard have so far made a solid case that Cline accessed their stored communications, he said. He also refused to dismiss claims that Cline’s prying caused them distress.

“If the allegations are true, the conduct of both parties is way beyond the pale,” Orrick said.

“And the idea that someone’s snooping around in someone else’s email without permission is sure to cause distress.”

Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the similar phrases were part of Reetz-Laiolo’s copyright claim; they are not. Additionally, it incorrectly stated that Cline attended the Academy of Art University. The errors have been corrected.

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