1709 Blog: for all the copyright community

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Cameron wins Avatar copyright case

Following on for my post on The Godfather, and whether it is possible to protect a film character by copyright, this week a federal judge in the US has thrown out a claim against James Cameron and 20th Century Fox. The  claim alleged that in making the film Avatar, Cameron and 20th Century Fox had copied the screenplay for the unmade film Bats and Butterflies by Elijah Schkeiban. This is one of many claims that Avatar infringes copyright in an existing work (no doubt inspired by Avatar's $2.7bn (£1.7bn) box-office gross) all of which have failed.

In this instance, Mr Schkeiban alleged that Avatar was substantially similar to his screenplay for Bats and Butterflies, an unmade film which was based on a series of books written by him. In particular he claimed that Jake Sully, the wheelchair-bound hero in Avatar, was based on the lead character in Bats and Butterflies because both are physically "weak". He also said that he multi-levelled homes which the Na'vi tribe live in on Avatar's moon, Pandora, are comparable to the plants and trees in Bats and Butterflies. Finally Mr Schkeiban argued that that the "twist" in Bats and Butterflies, whereby the baddies turn on the goodies, should be protected by copyright.
Common sense dictates that Mr Schkeiban's claim should fail. It is always difficult to protect a plot by copyright, and it is even more difficult to protect distinct elements of a story such as the protagonist's physically weak demeanour. In the UK, the Patent County Court found last year in Hodgson v Isaac that the entire plot of a book can be protected, however Mr Schkeiban's claim fell far short of alleging copying of the whole plot.

Manuel Real, sitting in the US district court of California held that Mr Schkeiban's screenplay was "not substantially similar" to Avatar and that Bats and Butterflies was "a straightforward children's story that lacks the depth and complexity of the moods expressed in Avatar". Whilst the decision is undeniably less interesting than the question of who should play Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey, it is reassuring to see a straightforward copyright case now and again.

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