Know Your 'Avatar' Lawsuits: Meet Three Plaintiffs Who Hope to Win Billions

Twentieth Century Fox

The top pirated film of all time, according to a study released by TorrentFreak in October 2011, is James Cameron's 3D epic, Avatar. The film has been downloaded some 21 million times since its release in 2009. Cameron once touted 3D filmmaking as the entertainment industry's best hope for fighting piracy, but unfortunately, that doesn't seem to have helped his film escape its pirated fate. The film has raked in nearly $2.8 billion in wordwide theatrical gross nonetheless.

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In the past ten days, the producers of Avatar have come under fire almost as if they had just settled on Earth and were intent on stealing the planet's most precious resource. James Cameron is Colonel Miles Quaritch in this analogy, the subject of scorn among some Earthlings who claim to have conceived of the many ideas behind Avatar only to have suffered as the blockbuster was ripped from their grips.

In the past week and a half, Cameron has been sued for stealing Avatar not once, not twice, but three separate times! One of those suits is from a plaintiff who demands more than $2.5 billion in damages.

How can we be so certain that among the various claims, there's not one winner among the bunch?

If we had to wager, we'd say that Eric Ryder has the best shot at victory, because he alleges the relatively sophisticated claim of breach of implied contract.

But more likely, many of these plaintiffs will suffer the fate of Kelly Van.

Who's this person?

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Van sued Cameron in early 2010, alleging that Avatar was based on the 2003 book Sheila the Warrior: the Damned, about a woman who is recruited by a government agency responsible for planetary mining to live on a world named "Tibet," a breathtakingly beautiful eco-friendly planet, where she falls in love with the locals and deals with "bloodsuckers" intent on destroying the planet if they can't get control of valuable minerals.

Sounds familiar enough, but in late September, a judge tossed Van's lawsuit on summary judgment, finding the "plot similarities are abstract ideas that are not protected by copyright," the themes of both works had "important differences," the dialogue lacked similarity in vocabulary and meaning, the characters are "general ideas," etc. (See the full decision.)

Now, three more individuals are taking their best shots at beating the Avatar colossus.  Here's a chart we put together that describes these three lawsuits:


Plaintiff’s Work


Example of Alleged “Substantial Similarity”

How Cameron Supposedly Gained Access To Plaintiff’s Work

Eric Ryder

A story called K.R.Z. 2068

A corporation colonizes and plunders a distant moon’s lush and wondrous natural setting and culminates in a corporate spy becoming a leader of a revolt against mining practices.

Sensory experience is shared between the protagonist and natives through locks of hair at the back of the head, through a filament, or pony-tail connection.

Ryder says he worked with Lightstorm for nearly two years on the development of his sci-fi story and provided his story as well as 3D visuals, character and scene development production ideas, and screenplay development assistance.

Gerald Morawski

Guardians of Edan, a motion picture pitch informed by time spent in Southeast Asia with indigenous peoples who lived in densely tropical areas.

An epic struggle takes place between evil mining interests, who would destroy the planet to satisfy their greed, and an indigenous tribe, that lives at one with, and protects its rain forest environment.

The hero is a military veteran who is suffering from a debilitating illness. Hero travels to rain forest where he is marked as a “chosen one” by “bioluminescent” “tree seeds” that light up “around his head and on him.”

Morawski says he’s an Army veteran who became a visual effects designer on productions at MGM and Sony/Tristar. He says he met Cameron in 1991 and under a non-disclosure agreement, pitched his motion picture project. He says Cameron also bought some art from him.

Bryan Moore

Two screenplays, titled Aquatica and The Pollination

A character grows from being a warrior to one who appreciates nature. There’s a heroic battle for control of the gargantuan forest.

A man joins a new soldiering outfit, where he works beside a female scientist and her team, and the female scientist questions his participation because of his military background.

Moore says the screenplay was submitted to Tom Cohen, Lightstorm’s Creative Executive as requested by the defendant. Moore also says that an exec at Fox got the script through some mutual college acquaintance.

Keep in mind that what you see above only represents litigation that was filed in the past ten days. There have been other lawsuits -- and not just in the United States.

The plaintiffs face high hurdles in either proving substantial similarity or showing that when their work was submitted for review, there was an expectation that if the material was later used, the writer would get compensation and credit.

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We're not exactly sure why plaintiff attorneys would agree to handle these longest of long-shot cases. Hopefully, the lawyers are also advising their clients to the risks of bringing these lawsuits. Over the past year, judges have been ordering losing defendants to pay the studio’s costs and attorneys fees. Failure to describe the pitfalls borders on malpractice.

Which brings us back to Kelly Van, the latest loser in the sweepstakes to lay a claim to Avatar's nearly $3 billion in worldwide box office. The plaintiff in this case is still fighting, attempting to seek relief from the judgment dismissing her case by arguing that she was not aware that one of her lawyers had been disbarred and was facing disciplinary proceedings.

Is there anyone else out there who thinks they have a more meritorious claim than Van and wants to try his or her luck? Avatar was released on December 18, 2009, meaning there's one more year before the statute of limitations expires on a copyright infringement claim. Hmm, December 2012. Didn't the indigenous peoples known as the Mayans have some kind of prophesy about that date?


Twitter: @eriqgardner

Correction: The original post said that Ryder was a former Lightstom employee. He never alleged that. The post has been amended.