Disney Wins 'Pirates Of The Caribbean' Copyright Suit As Court Declares You Cannot Copyright Pirate Life
from the a-bottle-of-rum dept
It’s no secret that Disney is almost solely responsible for the wild expansion of copyright law that has occurred over the course of decades. In addition to the near constant lobbying for longer copyright term lengths and a heavy-handed approach to enforcement, Disney has also found itself attempting to assert copyright in areas of broad ideas rather than literal copying. Perhaps to some, then, it was a shot of schadenfreude to watch Disney face its own lawsuit brought by screenwriters over its Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Way back in 2000, two writers and a producer pitched a script about pirate Davy Jones to Disney, which the company ultimate rejected. In 2004, Disney released the first of its own Pirates movies starring Johnny Depp.
But no amount of just desserts ought to change the legal principles in copyright law, so it’s still a good thing to see that the court has struck down the copyright suit on the grounds that the scripts aren’t actually similar, aside from some non-protectable ideas, rather than explicit expression. We can start with the purported similarities brought by producer Tova Laiter, which should immediately stand out to you as not protected by copyright law.
The writers and Laiter said the movies, like the screenplay, diverged from the traditional canon by portraying pirates as humorous, good men rather than terrifying brutes. They also claimed both works featured supernatural cursed, skull-faced pirates, and that actor Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow character was substantially similar to the screenplay’s Davy Jones.
But the “single purported similarity” between the widely varying plots—cursed pirates—was an idea that flows naturally from a basic plot premise and therefore unprotectable, the judge said. The dark mood driven by pirate battles and sea monsters also stemmed naturally from the pirate premise, Judge Consuelo B. Marshall said.
These are ideas and concepts, not actual expression, which is why the court ruled against the plaintiffs. Broad ideas, such as making pirates funny and likeable, are obviously not the sort of thing that copyright is designed to protect. Were Disney to have lifted the names and descriptions of pirates from the original screenplay, perhaps there would be a valid case. Minor deviations from well-worn pirate tropes, however, don’t work for a copyright suit.
And, while the plaintiffs attempted to draw comparisons between Jack Sparrow and their own Davy Jones, the court does a fairly thorough takedown in its own analysis.
The court dismissed comparisons between Sparrow and Jones, stating “cockiness, bravery, and drunkenness are generic, non-distinct characteristics which are not protectable.” The screenplay’s clean-shaven, ponytail- wearing Jones, who gave up pirating to raise orphans with a love interest, departed significantly from the unshaven wild-haired Sparrow who never renounces piracy or has any comparable relationships, Marshall said.
The court also discounted alleged copying of setting, dialogue and other elements as either overstated or a bid to protect the unprotectable.
It’s not easy to root for Disney in a copyright case, frankly. But the alternative — rooting for a plaintiff that wants to assert copyright over generic genre elements — is a complete non-starter.