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Paramount Pictures has been drawn into a potentially massive legal battle over the rights to Top Gun. According to a lawsuit filed on Monday in California federal court, the studio knew it didn’t have the rights to the sequel but forged ahead with production and distribution anyway.
The complaint was filed by Shosh and Yuval Yonay, the heirs to the author of the 1983 California magazine story, Ehud Yonay, entitled “Top Guns” that the original movie was based on. They are taking advantage of a provision in copyright law that allows authors to reclaim the rights to their works after waiting a period of time, typically 35 years. The clause has quickly become a massive thorn in the side of studios that face the prospect of losing franchise rights to many iconic works from the 1980s.
The Yonays claim that the rights to the story reverted back to them in January 2020 after sending Paramount a notice of termination, but that the studio “deliberately ignored this, thumbing its nose at the statute.” They seek an injunction to block the studio from further exploiting Top Gun: Maverick.
“This case arises out of Paramount’s conscious failure to re-acquire the requisite film and ancillary rights to the Yonays’ copyrighted Story prior to the completion and release of their derivative 2022 Sequel,” writes copyright termination heavyweight Marc Toberoff and former federal appellate judge Alex Kozinski, representing the Yonays.
Paramount acquired the copyright to Yonay’s story in 1983 immediately following publication. The piece about a naval training base focused on the pilots and their personal experiences, singling out the duo of hotshot pilot “Yogi” and his radio intercept officer “Possum.” Jerry Bruckheimer produced the original movie and its screenplay was written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., all of whom participated in the sequel.
According to the lawsuit, Paramount “consciously failed” to secure a new license to the film after the Yonays recovered their rights in 2020. They sent the studio a cease-and-desist letter regarding Top Gun: Maverick on May 11, 2022, two weeks before its release. Paramount allegedly denied that the movie was a derivative of the copyrighted story.
The Yonays contend that the movie wasn’t completed until May 8, 2021, more than a year after its right to the story had expired. Paramount, however, has maintained that the sequel was “sufficiently completed” prior to the termination date.
Top Gun: Maverick suffered several delays on the way to release. It was pushed back numerous times in 2020 and 2021 because of theater closures forced by the COVID-19 pandemic before hitting theaters in May. It has $550 million globally, scoring $90 million in its second weekend.
Paramount said in a statement, “These claims are without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously.” A defense it’s expected to avail itself of is that the facts in the copyrighted story are not subject to copyright.
There’s also the question of whether the original movie was a derivative of the copyrighted story. Paramount gave Ehud Yonay a “suggested by” credit in the 1986 film. While the studio acquired some rights to the magazine article, the purchase may not have been necessary to move forward with Top Gun.
And even if the original was a derivative of Yonay’s work, it does not mean that the sequel is as well if the studio did not rely on the story to create original elements of Top Gun: Maverick.
Toberoff represented the screenwriters behind the original Predator movie, who sued Disney’s 20th Century Studios to recapture their rights to the screenplay. That case settled in January. He also represents comic book heirs seeking to terminate Disney’s rights to various tentpole Marvel characters.
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