It's a court fight for film rights to Higgins novel

By Mark Shanahan & Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / May 17, 2011

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Not surprisingly, a dispute over film rights to the late George V. Higgins’s novel “The Rat on Fire’’ has ended up in court. Loretta Cubberley, Higgins’s widow and executor, has filed a copyright infringement claim against Boston University film professor Jan Egleson and independent filmmaker Robert Patton-Spruill, asserting they have no right to start filming “Rat.’’ Egleson signed a television deal with Higgins in 1979, which Egleson thought granted him perpetual screen rights to the work. Cubberley’s lawyer, William Strong, disagrees. “The exclusive television and motion picture rights . . . reverted to Higgins,’’ Strong wrote in his complaint filed in district court. Strong also alleges that Egleson “decided to dust off the manuscript of ‘The Rat on Fire’ ’’ because Egleson had noted the uptick in value of long-dormant Higgins works. The DVD release of Higgins’s novel “The Friends of Eddie Coyle’’ made a modest splash, and Brad Pitt is working on a movie of Higgins’s book “Cogan’s Trade’’ in New Orleans. This imbroglio may end up being the serial drama that Egleson hoped to sell to WGBH back in 1979. He and Patton-Spruill have shelved their plans to start filming “Rat’’ for now and have taken down their websites publicizing the movie. “It is unfortunate that instead of collaborating on a movie this summer, the Higgins estate has chosen the nuclear option of federal court,’’ Patton-Spruill wrote in an e-mail. “I welcome the opportunity to defend our rights and one day make an authentic film, in Boston, where it belongs.’’