James Cameron Wins Another 'Avatar' Idea Theft Lawsuit

A judge throws out a lawsuit from a man who claimed to have developed a sci-fi project at the behest of Lightstorm Entertainment.
James Cameron

James Cameron has prevailed once in again in convincing a judge that Avatar was his own "independent creation."

On Wednesday, a Los Angeles judge dismissed claims by Eric Ryder, who alleged that the blockbuster film ripped off his story called K.R.Z. 2068, described as an "environmentally-themed 3-D epic about a corporation's colonization and plundering of a distant moon's lush and wondrous natural setting."

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Although that might some somewhat similar to Cameron's epic, it didn't amount to being substantially similar, according to the judge.

"There is no evidence James Cameron did not create Avatar in 1996,'' said Judge Susan Bryant-Deason. "This was obviously his biggest baby he's every produced from what I can tell.''

That statement is hardly shocking. Avatar earned nearly $2.8 billion in box-office receipts when it came out in 2009. In Hollywood, success often breeds claims of theft, and as the highest-grossing movie of all time, Avatar has triggered one lawsuit after another from writers and artists attempting to prove that Cameron's inspiration was unlawfully assisted.

For Cameron, it's hard not to take it all personally.

"I feel compelled ... to address how deeply offensive it is to me that people like Mr. Ryder can ignore the hard work and creativity of others by trying to stake a claim to art and take credit for art that is not theirs in any way whatsoever,'' he said in the court battle.

Reacting to the win, Cameron stated, "Sadly, it seems that whenever a successful motion picture is produced, there are people who try to 'get rich quick' by claiming their ideas were used. Several such claims have been asserted in connection with Avatar. I am grateful that our courts have consistently found these claims to be meritless.  As I have previously stated, Avatar was my most personal film, drawing upon themes and concepts that I had been exploring for decades. I am very appreciative that the Court rejected the specious claim by Mr. Ryder that I used any of his ideas in my film."

The victory is another notch in the belt for Cameron, who has won several lawsuits already on this front.

Ryder was one of the first to sue Cameron, and although the writer faced incredibly long odds, he did bring allegations that in theory at least, gave him the best shot at prevailing. In particular, Ryder said in his lawsuit that he had visited Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment offices approximately six times in 2001, met with senior executives there, disclosed K.R.Z., and on the request of one of the company's development executives, had worked on numerous story drafts, 3D imaging material, photographs and visual representations of certain distant planet scenes.

Ultimately, Lightstorm passed on the project. According to the lawsuit, the company at that time "represented to Mr. Ryder that no one would go to see an environmentally themed feature length science fiction movie."

Ryder's legal claim wasn't for copyright infringement, but rather that Cameron and Lightstorm had breached an implied contract to compensate Ryder for his ideas and also committed fraud and deceit. Nevertheless, the plaintiff still needed to show that Avatar was similar enough to K.R.Z. and that Cameron hadn't independently created it prior to Ryder's pitch. That was a high bar that Ryder has failed to clear.

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Cameron had the law on his side. He also had high-priced attorneys at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp. Despite having the fame, fortune and foundation to prevail, this lawsuit -- and others -- have posed difficulties for Cameron. Among the sensitivities was how to handle plaintiff demands for sensitive documents without revealing too many Avatar secrets. Both Cameron and 20th Century Fox have confronted judges ordering the sharing of draft scripts and financials on the film. Additionally, Cameron's lawyers have warned judges that details about Avatar's preparation could lead to leaks about what it has in store for future Avatar sequels.

Although Cameron has put to bed another Avatar lawsuit, he's not completely clear from claims of theft. In Maryland, science fiction writer Bryant Moore is still alive in a case that claims that Avatar derives from two screenplays that were submitted to a Lightstorm executive. And in New York, album cover artist William Roger Dean is contending that Avatar copied 14 of his fantasy-infused artworks.

In other words, this won't be the last headline on the James Cameron legal front.

E-mail: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner