James Cameron was recently sued yet again for Avatar, the latest in a long line of plagiarism accusations against the director stretching back to Terminator. But is Cameron a serial plagiarist, or just a popular target for copyright lawsuits?
There are certainly some cases (Sally Mann's in particular, and given the similarities between the openings of "Soldier" and The Terminator, likely Harlan Ellison's as well) where Cameron may well be at fault, but some of the suits that have been lodged against the director are based on rather tenuous threads. The myriad Avatar suits seem to indicate, if anything, that many of the themes that pop up in Avatar are common to a lot of stories, although a couple of the accusations, such as Eric Ryder's, may have more teeth, depending on how the evidence shakes out.
It's worth noting that these aren't the only instances in which Cameron has been accused of borrowing images and ideas; these are simply the ones in which some form of legal action was pursued. And these aren't the only lawsuits involving Cameron and his films.
Plaintiff: Harlan Ellison
Claim: Most of the information about Ellison's charges against Cameron comes from Ellison himself—so take it with whatever grains of salt you feel Ellison warrants. The way Ellison tells it, he began hearing rumblings during the production of Terminator that it was sounding a bit like his Outer Limits episode "Soldier," which Ellison had adapted from his 1957 story "Soldier From Tomorrow." Ellison claims that his requests to read the script were denied and that he wasn't invited to the critics screenings. When he managed to sneak into one of the screenings, he felt that the first few minutes of Terminator were identical to "Soldier."
If true, another aspect of Ellison's claim is more compelling. He says that he was contacted by a friend at Starlog, who said that the magazine was receiving pressure from Cameron's representatives to excise a quote from an interview Cameron gave Starlog. According to Ellison, in the original transcript of the interview, Cameron says that he got the idea for Terminator from a handful of Outer Limits episodes. Ellison also claims that another acquaintance reported to him that he'd heard Cameron boast that he'd "ripped off a couple of Harlan Ellison stories" in the writing of Terminator. (Many people have noted that, in addition to "Soldier," "Demon with a Glass Hand," another Ellison Outer Limits episode, bears certain similarities to Terminator.)
Result: It doesn't appear that Ellison ever filed a complaint; he says that the studio was eager to settle the case out of court. He puts the monetary settlement in the vicinity of $65,000 and now the Terminator credits include an acknowledgement of
thank you to Harlan Ellison.
Edit: Just to be clear, because there has been some misunderstanding in certain quarters: It's been well reported and recorded that the producers of Terminator settled with Ellison and that the acknowledgment in the credits is part of that settlement. Ellison is the primary source, however, for several details of the case, notably regarding the Starlog interview.
Notes: Ellison is certainly no stranger to lawsuits, having been a plaintiff in suits against CBS Paramount Television (for his work on the original Star Trek series), Fantagraphics (claiming he was defamed in the book Comics As Art (We Told You So)—in anecdotes about a libel lawsuit once launched against Ellison, no less), and the makers of the film In Time (until he saw the film and decided it was not, in fact, an adaptation of his story "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman"). Cameron, for his part, continued to deny Ellison's claims and objected to the change in the Terminator credits.
Here is Ellison talking about the suit:
Film: Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Plaintiffs: William Green, Filia and Constantinos Kourtis
Claim: This is definitely one (technically two) of the weirder copyright suits to be filed against Cameron. Filia and Constantinos Kourtis developed the concept for a film called The Minotaur, about a half-man, half-bull creature that could shapeshift into various human forms. The couple hired William Green to write the script, and began shopping it around in 1989. James Cameron expressed some interest in the script, but ultimately, the project wasn't produced.
When Terminator 2 came out, the Kourtises believed that the shapeshifting T-1000 was inspired by their minotaur. Green filed suit against Cameron and the other makers of Terminator 2 for copyright violation. The Kourtises later filed their own separate suit.
Result: Green v. Schwarzenegger was dismissed by the US District Court on summary judgment because "no reasonable fact-finder could find that [the screenplay based on the Kourtises’ concept] and ‘Terminator 2’ are
substantially similar under federal copyright law." After a summary judgment in favor of Mario Kassar, one of the Terminator producers, a US District Court ordered the Kourtises to pay Kassar's attorney fees. When the Kourtises failed to pay, the court suspended their suits against Cameron and the other filmmakers.
Notes: The Kourtises' case is actually considered more interesting from a procedural standpoint than an intellectual property one. When the Kortises brought their case after Green's case had been dismissed, the Ninth Circuit had to determine whether they were collaterally estopped from pursuing their suit. Their case was permitted to go forward.
Film: True Lies
Plaintiff: Lucien Lambert
Claim: Cameron is technically a defendant in this suit, but it's highly unlikely that he had any hand in the alleged plagiarism here. True Lies is a remake of the 1991 French film La Totale!, directed and co-written by Claude Zidi. Screenwriter Lucien Lambert claimed that La Totale! was based on his 1982 script Emilie and filed suit against Zidi and Cameron in French court.
Result: Lambert lost his initial suit as he was not able to prove that Emilie predated La Totale! However, he prevailed on appeal. Since Cameron purchased the remake rights in good faith, he was not ordered to pay any damages to Lambert. Instead, Zidi was ordered to pay damages out of the $15 million he received from the remake.
Notes: Although Lambert's attorney, Olivier Meyer, notes that Cameron wasn't at legal fault, he still got his digs in at the director. Variety quotes him as saying, “It is not very nice for James Cameron, who is really not at fault in all of this, but a moral judgment has been made nonetheless. When you buy something, you have to know where it has come from.”
Plaintiff: Sally Mann
Claim: You know those sketches that show up in Jack's sketchbook? Well, some folks thought those sketches were a wee bit familiar. One person is photographer Sally Mann, who accused Cameron of copying her controversial photograph Rodney Plogger at 6:01 (child nudity at the link) for the sketchbook without her permission. Cameron has claimed that he drew the sketches himself.
Result: Cameron reportedly settled with Mann before that year's Academy Awards.
Notes: Rodney Plogger at 6:01 isn't the only photograph that allegedly turns up in Jack's sketchbook. An article in New York Magazine points to two other probable photographic inspirations: Alfred Stieglitz’s Georgia O’Keeffe, Hands, 1920 and Brassaï’s “Bijou” of Montmartre.
Series: Dark Angel
Claim: Trillo and Meglia are the creators of Cybersix, a comic book series that was later adapted as a live-action television series and an animated television series. The series centers on Cyber-6, an artificially created humanoid created by the evil Dr. Von Reichter. After the Cybers rebelled, Von Reichter ordered them destroyed and only Cyber-6 survived. She takes on the identity of a male high school literature teacher, but battles Con Reichter's creations by night. Trillo and Meglia initiated a suit against Cameron and the Fox Broadcasting Company, claiming that Dark Angel borrows much of its plot and many details from Cybersix. The website Axxón lists several of the perceived similarities between the comic and the show.
Result: In a 2007 interview, Trillo said that he and Meglia were not able to afford an attorney to further pursue the case in Los Angeles. He continued to maintain that Dark Angel was based on Cybersix.
Notes: Carlos Meglia passed away in 2008, and Carlos Trillo passed in 2011. A 2005 article in the Daily Radar suggested another inspiration for Dark Angel: Robert Heinlein's 1982 novel Friday.
Film: Avatar (Lawsuit #1)
Claim: It seems that everyone and their scifi-writing mother has been bringing lawsuits claiming their work was the key inspiration for Avatar. Author Zhou Shaomou was quick to make his claim, saying that Cameron's opus shared 80 percent of its material with his novel The Legend of the Blue Crow. Zhou filed a claim in Chinese court seeking eight percent of the film's profits.
Result: The Chinese court dismissed the case in 2010. The court found Zhou provided insufficient evidence to proceed with the case.
Film: Avatar (Lawsuit #2)
Plaintiff: Emil Malak
Claim: In Malak's screenplay, Terra Incognita, creatures with tails and braided hair are defending their planet from a militaristic group of humans looking to mine minerals. Their community life also centers around a tree that contains the community members' shared memories. Malak claims that he sent the script to Lightstorm Entertainment, Cameron's production company, in 2002, and that the "essential building blocks" of his script were used for Avatar.
Result: Malak filed his statement of claim in Vancouver. According to the Vancouver Sun, representatives of 20th Century Fox have claimed that a script outline of Avatar has existed since 1996, and Malak agreed to drop the case if that claim could be proven. However, when Malak had a screenshot provided by Fox in 2010 analyzed by two computer experts, the experts said that the screenshot did not prove the date of the file. Malak and his lawyers have requested the original file, but it has not been provided. Since the file has not been provided two years after the initial request, a Federal Court judge found for spoliation of evidence in October 2012. The suit is ongoing.
Film: Avatar (Lawsuit #3)
Plaintiff: Kelly Van
Claim: Kelly Van's novel Sheila the Warrior: The Damned, which was published online in 2003, is about a woman who travels to the breathtakingly beautiful planet Tibet, which is threatened by the alien "Blood Suckers" that are looking to control the planet's minerals. Van filed a complaint claiming that the plot, characters (along with their physique, demeanor, attire, and rituals), settings, and scenes from Avatar were borrowed from Sheila the Warrior.
Result: No surprises on this one: the US District Court dismissed Van's case, saying that the commonalities between the ideas were too abstract to warrant a copyright violation. The similarities in plot, themes, dialogue, setting, pace, characters, and sequence of events were deemed insufficient to be infringing.
Film: Avatar (Lawsuit #4—The Interesting One)
Plaintiff: Eric Ryder
Claim: Eric Ryder's case is distinct from the other Avatar claims in that Ryder claims he was actually working with Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment on a treatment of his script, K.R.Z. 2068. According to Ryder's complaint, he spent two years from, 1996-1998, working with Lightstorm to develop "an environmentally themed 3D epic about a corporation's colonization and plundering of a distant moon's lush and wondrous natural setting, the corporation's spy sent to crush an insurrection on the distant moon among anthropomorphic, organically created beings populating that moon, and the spy's remote sensing experiences with the beings, emotional attachment to one of them in particular, and eventual spiritual transformation into a leader of the lunar beings' revolt against the corporation's mining practices." He claims that he was eventually told by Lightstorm that they would not go forward with production because no one was interested in an environmentally themed scifi film.
Result: In January, a Los Angeles Superior Court ordered Cameron to turn over any and all drafts of Ryder's K.R.Z. 2068 scripts. In a sworn statement, Cameron claims that has never met or communicated with Ryder and did not use any materials created by Ryder. The suit is ongoing.
Film: Avatar (Lawsuit #5)
Plaintiff: Gerald Morawski
Claim: Visual effects designer Gerald Morawski claims that he sold Cameron four pieces of artwork in 1991, and during their meeting, Morawski pitched his idea for a film called Guardians of Eden, which would pit an evil mining company against an indigenous tribe that lives in harmony with its rainforest home. He says that he faxed Lightstorm Entertainment a conceptual summary of Guardians of Eden and signed a confidentiality and nondisclosure agreement, but was later told that he would have to write a screenplay in order for production to move forward. Morawski never wrote a screenplay. He sued Cameron and Lightstorm for breach of contract, fraud, and negligent misrepresentation.
Result: The US District Court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment, finding that each of the alleged similarities between Avatar and Guardians of Eden could be found in Cameron's earlier work. The timing of Cameron's meeting with Morawski and the development of Avatar was deemed "not by itself sufficient to give rise to an inference of use."
Film: Avatar (Lawsuit #6)
Plaintiff: Bryant Moore
Claim: Sick of Avatar lawsuits yet? Bryant Moore claimed that Avatar was based on not one but two of his screenplays, Aquatica and Descendants: The Pollination. The alleged similarities include bioluminescent flora and fauna, unbreathable atmosphere, a hero who moves from being a warrior to one who appreciates nature, and a battle for control of a grand forest. He also claimed that he sent both scripts to Tom Cohen, Lightstorm’s Creative Executive. More sued for $2.5 billion, including $1 billion in punitive damages.
Result: The US District Court dismissed the case in March 2013, ruling that Moore's claims "fail because there is no substantial similarity between Defendants’ motion picture Avatar and either of Plaintiff’s scripts and because Plaintiff failed to plead the existence of any implied-in-fact contract between Plaintiff and any Defendant."
Film: Avatar (Lawsuit #7)
Plaintiff: Elijah Schkeiban
Claim: Elijah Schkeiban claimed that Avatar infringed upon his Bats and Butterflies franchise, and that the two stories follow a similar series of events. The complaint also cites passages of dialogue Schkeiban claimed were similar, along with similarities in the themes and setting.
Result: This is another plaintiff who ended up paying Cameron's legal fees. In September 2012, US District Court Judge Manuel Real threw out the case, saying that Bats and Butterflies was "a straightforward children's story that lacks the depth and complexity of the moods expressed in Avatar."
Film: Avatar (Lawsuit #8)
Claim: The latest suit against Cameron comes from visual artist Roger Dean. Dean filed a $50 million suit against Cameron on June 27, 2013, alleging that Avatar substantially copies images from Dean's fantasy paintings.
Result: This one has just been filed, so we'll have to wait and see whether a judge finds Dean's claims viable, or if it gets tossed like most of the other Avatar lawsuits. You can read our post about the similarities between Dean's artwork and Avatar here and Cameron's comment about whether a Yes album cover created by Dean was an inspiration: "It might have been... Back in my pot-smoking days."