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.

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Comments on “Disney Wins 'Pirates Of The Caribbean' Copyright Suit As Court Declares You Cannot Copyright Pirate Life”

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65 Comments
Pirates 3: Roger Jolly, Yoho Ho, Andy Bottle O'Rum says:

First sentence is egregious over-reach. MILLIONS benefitted,

from extending copyright length and nailing down laws trying to prevent millions of thefts without inconveniencing honest people — and rightly so, just not nearly enough yet.

Sheerly for writing, you only distract with that first sentence. There’s nothing here controversial though, so guess you had to go trolling, and I bit.

[By the way, screen name occurred to me hours ago. It’s always topical here at Pirate Bay West.]

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

What, exactly, is the benefit of a copyright term lasting "life + 75 years" compared to "life + 50 years"?
Simple – it tremendously extends the reach of corporations, and bolsters governmental intrusion. If you love censorship and corporations, then extended copyright is wonderful.

Should anything be allowed to be inherited?

In true capitalism, I’d say no.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

That’s the cost of a low-end home in a good neighborhood.

If I leave an estate of $5 million, the government takes a huge chunk of it.

If I blow it all buying hats instead, the government says that’s ok – it’s my money.

I earned it, I should be able to spend it how I wish, within the confines of the law.

Which includes "spending" it on my kids and grandkids.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

"If I blow it all buying hats instead, the government says that’s ok – it’s my money"

You would also still pay tax.

Tax is generally payable on transfer of money from one person to another. There’s no reason this should change just because they’re related to each other.

"within the confines of the law"

The law includes paying tax.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

If I blew it on hats, I’d pay 8% State Sales Tax.

Estate taxes are a bit higher than that.

What it comes down to is… ownership. Is the Estate I leave when I die mine to distribute, or does it belong to the Government?

And that $500k number is ludicrous. Work for thirty years, invest wisely in low-risk areas, and you should leave an estate of about three times that by age 75 or so.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

I get it, But you are still advocating the creation of an aristocrat class.

"It’s mine and the government can’t have it" applies equally well to estate and income taxes. I am in favor of Progressive taxes. Raising the tax rate on the highest earners isn’t going to disincentivize anyone from making more money.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Re:

We’ve got an "aristocrat" class. We just call them "politicians".

"Raising the tax rate on the highest earners…."

…you mean the people that already pay over 90% of the total income taxes collected by the Federal Government?

…or do you mean the people IN government that are in the top 5% or so of earners, the people that MAKE the laws regarding taxation?

…or do you mean the people that buy the laws to protect their income?

And when you hear some liberal millionaire complaining that his tax rate is lower than his chauffeur’s, please point out to him or her that the IRS has always accepted donations, there’s absolutely nothing preventing them from paying that same "rate".

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

"If I blew it on hats, I’d pay 8% State Sales Tax.

Estate taxes are a bit higher than that."

They also only apply to estate of over $5.8 million at present in the US. Do you have more than that, or are you just another useful idiot who’s been convinced to oppose taxes for the wealthy against your own benefit (as shortfall in taxes taken from the wealthy will usually be levied on the middle class instead)?

"Is the Estate I leave when I die mine to distribute, or does it belong to the Government?"

Both. As with any time you use your money, some goes to pay for the society you’ve benefitted from, and the majority goes to the recipient.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Re:

On paper, I don’t know. Assessments here run about double actual sale value, so until you actually sell a property, you don’t know what it’s "worth" so far as the government is concerned.

Unless you die – then it’s taxed at full assessed value.

And in your last, you’ve switched from "spend" to "use". If I liquidate everything and "leave" my kids suitcases of non-sequential hundreds, I have not "spent" that money, it’s not in the taxable income stream.

One of my kids spending $100 of that cash is returning it to the income stream. Them putting it in a piggy bank for one of their kids is not. I don’t see the difference.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:8 Re:

"Assessments here run about double actual sale value, so until you actually sell a property, you don’t know what it’s "worth" so far as the government is concerned."

So… you have the power to work out whether you fall under the $5.8 million threshold or now. Check it out. If you don’t have that much, you’re demanding that people with way more money than you escape their taxes. BTW, if you have that much, it means you have are in the top 2.5% of Americans and the top 0.5% of the world’s population. That’s what Gary was saying above – allowing the ultra rich to transfer money without payment to society allows for the plutocratic society you apparently demand.

"If I liquidate everything and "leave" my kids suitcases of non-sequential hundreds, I have not "spent" that money, it’s not in the taxable income stream."

Until that money gets spent, yes.

"One of my kids spending $100 of that cash is returning it to the income stream. Them putting it in a piggy bank for one of their kids is not."

Somebody somewhere will transfer that money somewhere else eventually, and it will be taxed at that point.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"Should anything be allowed to be inherited?"

More like "should you be able to inherit the dubious right to prevent 3rd parties from making copies of information?"

I’m all on board with inheriting actual assets such as money and physical properties. The key issue is that an idea, or the concept of specific information, is not a property.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

If you love censorship and corporations, then copyright is wonderful.

Fixed that for you.

Thanks!!

Personally I love how some posters are frothing mad at the government telling them to do anything. But are all "Gevernemnt BAD – except Copyright!"
Then switch right over to "Corporations BAD – Unless they are controlling me with Copyright!"

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: why life+75?

Simple. The original Mickey Mouse cartoons were created in 1928. Their creator died in 1966. They should be in the public domain by now… but changing the law to life+75 (and attempting to coerce Canada and Mexico to follow suit by reneging on parts of NAFTA to try to force an even-worse trade agreement on them) ensures that this content never becomes free to the public. 1928. Mickey Mouse.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: why life+75?

"…changing the law to life+75 (and attempting to coerce Canada and Mexico to follow suit by reneging on parts of NAFTA to try to force an even-worse trade agreement on them) ensures that this content never becomes free to the public."

Hence why any law purchased by vested interests has become known as a "Mickey Mouse law".

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Plural?

All of the parts they snipped off of him for cosmetic reasons were saved, nurtured in a barometric chamber, and reassembled. It’s mostly nose, and it can’t dance very well, but it was working on a sequel to ‘Beat It’ called ‘Blow It’ which was destined to be a hit until it came down with a Bad case of nostriillitis and perished.

Hence, ‘corpses’.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The only people who truly benefitted from copyright lasting two lifetimes are the people in charge of companies such as Disney and people who turned their copyright royalties into “rich people’s welfare”.

Without this, there would be an incentive to kill the copyright holder.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

"Oh come on, that was funny!"

Sadly not since the exact same has been suggested in earnest by bona fide copyright trolls, including our own Baghdad Bob/Bobmail/blue.

Poe’s Law states that it’s impossible to parody a clown. Similarly it’s impossible to parody a copyright troll because all the comedian accomplishes is to spout a blurb of genuine pro-copyright propaganda while believing he’s being sarcastic.

cpt kangarooski says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

So long as the term is based on their life, there will always be that incentive. Base the term on a fixed period of years, like we used to do (e.g. 20 years from creation of the work) and there is no problem. Doesn’t matter if the author dies immediately after creation or halfway through the term, or outlives the copyright.

Of course, in reality, no one cares about killing authors for their copyrights anyway except perhaps their heirs, who are incentivized to do so by longer copyright terms. The value of a profitable copyright to them is worth a hell of a lot more than the nebulous value of a work being in the public domain is to a hypothetical community-minded murderer.

That you’d suggest there are such folks shows how stupid you are.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Remember: according to John Smith, the fact that he thought of a scenario where a waiter can call a woman a hooker because someone on 4chan did half a decade ago suddenly means all harassment and rape and murder laws have ceased to exist unless Section 230 is nuked from orbit and IP addresses are taken as the purest, most incontrovertible form of evidence.

PaulT (profile) says:

"But the “single purported similarity” between the widely varying plots—cursed pirates—was an idea that flows naturally from a basic plot premise "

It’s also in the ride the movie was based on, IIRC. I certainly remember pirate skeletons from my first visit to Disneyworld in 1991, although I grant that my memory could be faulty.

Anonymous Coward says:

Disney did not invent pirates ,or davy jones ,or sea monsters,
they are lucky they lost this case,
image a company could copyright simple tropes like
western or gangster movies ,
it would be very restictive on free speech
or creators of tv show,s .Disney has made movies based on old folk tales that were created before
the film industry even existed .
It would be very hard to create a genre film that was completely original without using concepts like lawman ,magic, hero, cowboy ,gangster etc
holywood needs long copyrights because they will still
be making films based on ip they own in 100 years .
Even after the original creator has passed away.
Mission impossible is based on an old tv show from the 70,s
In 50 years time they will still be making spiderman and batman films .

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