In late 2011, James Cameron was Colonel Miles Quaritch. His Lightstorm Entertainment was sued three times in a 10-day period over allegations he had trampled on the precious works of various writers to create Avatar, which earned nearly $2.8 billion at the box office.
On Friday, Cameron went three-for-three in defending these lawsuits after a Maryland judge denied a $1 billion copyright claim from Bryant Moore, who alleged that Lightstorm had infringed two of his screenplays, Aquatica and The Pollination.
Moore survived longer than Gerald Morawski, whose lawsuit was rejected last February, as well as Eric Ryder, whose lawsuit was dismissed last October, but ultimately Moore suffered the same fate as these other plaintiffs. U.S. District Judge Roger Titus determines in a summary judgment ruling (read here) that there’s not enough similarity in Moore’s works, and that Cameron’s company presented a strong case for independent creation.
In his lawsuit, Moore alleged that Lightstorm had perhaps gotten his screenplays in the mid-1990s from a production assistant who worked on the set of Cameron’s True Lies. Moore said that Lightstorm may also have gotten access via a Fox Broadcasting employee who was also given a copy of his work. Moore also submitted his works directly to a development executive at Lightstorm in 2003, but the judge says that was “insufficient to infer access by everyone at the company.”
Nevertheless, the ruling largely turns on whether there was substantial similarity between Moore’s two screenplays and Avatar.
“Even at the highest level of generality, the plots of the works at issue here are quite different,” writes Judge Titus. “Avatar is about a paraplegic ex-Marine, Jake Sully, who takes over a genetically engineered avatar body to study the indigenous people of the planet Pandora. … Pollination is a story about two warring groups of humans: pollinators and descendants. … Aquatica is an underwater adventure story about two warring factions, one of whom is a ruthless evil tribe attempting to dominate the planet.”
The judge notes “certain limited commonalities” like love affairs in a sci-fi futuristic setting and the main characters’ transitions from scientist to warrior but writes that these elements are too broad to be eligible for copyright protection. Same goes for large forest settings and a 3D representation of terrain in a futuristic battle movie.
After shooting down Moore’s claims of substantial similarity in plot, setting, characters and mood — as well as claimed “literal similarities” like “upside down trees with plants growing out of them” — the judge talks about Cameron’s independent creation.
“Cameron submitted a comprehensive declaration that specifically addresses Moore’s allegations and points to past projects and other sources of inspiration from which he drew in writing Avatar,” writes the judge. “For example, he discusses how a story he wrote in college addressed the issue of ‘transitioning from a disabled body’ which inspired Jake Sully’s handicap. He introduced a sketch he drew in high school of a large tree on which he modeled the ‘hometree’ in Avatar. He also, for example, claims that a film he worked on in the 1970s, Xenogenesis, featured a similar setting to that in Avatar (willow-like trees, blue and green bioluminescence, etc.). Cameron’s detailed declaration and accompanying exhibits are persuasive.”
For more on what Cameron had to say, see this similar declaration in the Morawski lawsuit.
“Sadly, a cottage industry has arisen of fortune hunting plaintiffs seeking to ‘strike it rich’ by claiming their ideas were the basis for Avatar,” says Cameron in a statement. “As I have previously stated, Avatar was my most personal film, drawing upon themes and concepts that I had been exploring for decades. Our film was also the product of a team of some of the world’s most creative artists and designers, and it is an insult to all of them when these specious claims are made. I am grateful that Judge Titus and the other jurists who have dealt with these cases have recognized the complete lack of merit of these offensive lawsuits.”