Luc Besson’s Europacorp has to pay out €80,000 after a French court ruled that Lockout was pretty much of a copy of Escape From New York.
There are a number of interesting things to note about this case. First of all, French copyright law is, in general, much more plaintiff friendly than America’s. Second, the French court noted the fact that reviews of Lockout had mentioned the similarities. As much as filmmakers like to blame reviewers for losing them money, it’s actually somewhat true in this case.
A report on the ruling form Légipresse explains the court’s logic:
The court recalled that although ideas are free to be used and there could be no protection merely for the theme of a film, it was nevertheless possible to consider whether the form of the film was not a characteristic feature, and whether its reproduction was such as to constitute infringement of copyright; this was determined by considering similarities rather than differences.
Légipresse summarized the damning similarities the court found:
The court nevertheless noted many similarities between the two science-fiction films: both presented an athletic, rebellious and cynical hero, sentenced to a period of isolated incarceration - despite his heroic past - who is given the offer of setting out to free the President of the United States or his daughter held hostage in exchange for his freedom; he manages, undetected, to get inside the place where the hostage is being held, after a flight in a glider/space shuttle, and finds there a former associate who dies; he pulls off the mission in extremis, and at the end of the film keeps the secret documents recovered in the course of the mission.
Almost all of this description sounds pretty generic. Taken separately, things like “athletic, rebellious and cynical hero” and “manages, undetected, to get inside the place where the hostage is being held” sound like things that every action movie has. And if the press noting a similarity could damn you, every “Die Hard on a ______” movie would be in serious trouble. But under French law, these two films were apparently close enough that Europacorp had to pay out €20,000 to John Carpenter, €10,000 to Escape from New York co-writer Nick Castle, and €50,000 to rights holder StudioCanal.
Europacorp is appealing, saying that the similarities are common film tropes and that the ruling stifles artistic expression.
Ironically, the U.S. legal principle that says that genre conventions and stock characters cannot be copyrighted has a French name: “scènes à faire.”
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