Can You Keep Up With Everyone Suing Over How Avatar 'Stole' Its Story?

from the keep-up dept

Thanks to the rise of "ownership society" where intellectual property maximalists like to push the concept that you can "own" ideas, any time there's a remotely successful book, movie or TV show, we hear about lawsuits from people insisting that the idea for the story was "stolen." Of course, almost none of these have any merit whatsoever. However, when it comes to the movie Avatar, it seems like the movie didn't just break box office and overall revenue numbers -- it's breaking records with lawsuits from people trying to get a piece of the action as well. In the past we've written about multiple different lawsuits against James Cameron over where the story came from. Most of these were pretty laughable -- just people who had written stories with vague plot similarities. However, they keep coming.

Not sure why it's all happening now, but three new lawsuits have been filed from people claiming that the Avatar story was "stolen." One of the lawsuits is asking for $2.5 billion in damages. For one of the most cliched and overused plotlines around. Wow.

However, that article at THResq also notes that one of the earliest lawsuits over this was unceremoniously dumped as a judge reminded the plaintiff, Kelly Van, that "plot similarities are abstract ideas that are not protected by copyright." The court also noted that the dialogue was entirely different, and the attempt to show similarities was pretty laughable:
The examples provided by the Plaintiff fail to show any similarities that would rise to the level of being substantial. Such examples lack similarities in vocabulary and meaning, only vaguely referencing a similar abstract idea at times. For example, the dialogue, "It was all a big secret back then and up until four years ago we didn't even know that there was a science base clear on the other side of the planet, unavailable to any of us" and "There's a mobile link up at Site 26 we can work out of, way up in the mountains" share no similarities other than the general idea that a second remote science facility exists on each planet.
It goes on like this busting every single claim of copying. I imagine most of the other lawsuits will face the same result. It's really too bad that courts haven't done much in the way of awarding attorneys fees on lots of these kinds of lawsuits. There were similar lawsuits around Harry Potter, the Davinci Code and even Hannah Montana, and they're such a huge waste of time. Wouldn't it be nice if people finally realized that just because you had a story idea, it doesn't mean that no one else came up with something similar?


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 2:29pm

    Wow, them media companies sure like stealing from the Little Man.

    /s

     

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  2.  
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    Kevin H (profile), Dec 28th, 2011 @ 2:30pm

    Well if thats the case then Cameron needs to pay the creators of Dances with Wolves and the Smurfs a tidy sum.

     

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  3.  
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    Ima Fish (profile), Dec 28th, 2011 @ 2:33pm

    I think it's funny that people say that Avatar ripped off both Independence Day...

    They both involve invasions from other planets. They both attempt a peaceful solution to the invasion. We and the Na’vi both learn that the invaders are amoral consumers of resources who have destroyed every other planet they’ve/we’ve come into contact with. We and the Na’vi contact other countries/tribes to get them on board for the coming battles. Right before the final battles President Whitmore and Jake Sully give over-the-top impassioned speeches about how the invaders must be defeated to save their planets from eradication. And despite overwhelming odds, we and the Na’vi defeat the invaders using a combination of the invader’s technology with our/their own.

    .... and Pocahontas. Both stories deal with foreigners attacking a less technologically advanced culture and how one of the attackers has to change sides to save the woman he loves.

    But yet no one ever argues that Independence Day ripped Pocahontas. Heck, when H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds, not a single person complained that he stole Pocahontas' life story.

    The same is true of Star Wars. People have claimed that it was merely a ripoff of such disparate sources such as ancient myths, of Flash Gordon, of the Japanese story The Hidden Fortress, and a retread of a western set in space.

    It should be clear to anyone with a brain that the underlying ideas of the stories are common because they're very popular.

     

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  4.  
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    Someantimalwareguy (profile), Dec 28th, 2011 @ 2:36pm

    Humans will be humans...

    ...and any story that can be told will have similar themes. The only thing that changes are scenery. props, costumes, and language - not what the core story is about...

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 2:37pm

    Re:

    Maybe just the smurfs, but only the older smurfs, not the new ones. Lazy people taking childhood favorite and making them digital.

    As for Dances with wolves, it is just the outcast having to adapt. See hachet.

     

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  6.  
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    AC, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 2:49pm

    this will stop when shyster lawyers stop encouraging and then taking money from clients ahead of time, lawyers have a vested interest in egging people on instead of telling them the truth for a hours worth of time

     

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  7.  
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    MrWilson, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 2:52pm

    Re:

    "It should be clear to anyone with a brain that the underlying ideas of the stories are common because they're universal."

    FTFY

    They're popular because they're universal. If you're looking for themes of foreign invaders looking for resources and inter-tribal relationships between people caught in the middle, Pocahontas is a relatively new example compared to the vast history of military campaigns and imperialism dating back thousands of years.

     

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  8.  
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    Ima Fish (profile), Dec 28th, 2011 @ 3:03pm

    Re: Re:

    I think they're universal because they're popular. It's a simple fact that an idea that was, is, and remains unpopular would never become universal.

     

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  9.  
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    HMTKSteve, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 3:10pm

    Contract Rights

    Did any of these people show their screenplays to Cameron or his people ahead of avatar? If so did they have contracts in place to protect them if Cameron turned around and made a movie that is similar to their works?

    I have designed games in the past and one thing I know from the gaming industry is that they never accept cold submissions. Before they even look at or talk about your idea contracts are signed to protect both parties (mainly the company) from any problems down the line based on stolen ideas. Doesn't this same sort of thing exist in the movie industry?

    If these people shopped their screenplay to Cameron and were turned down then they might have a legal leg to stand on. Otherwise they are SOL.

     

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  10.  
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    el_segfaulto (profile), Dec 28th, 2011 @ 3:11pm

    Re: Re:

    The Smurfs are Teh Socialistz, comrade! Just like the muppets, they eschew proper capitalism to lead a hippie-like communal lifestyle. They should all be tear-gassed right now just to show them who is in charge.

     

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  11.  
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    Kevin H (profile), Dec 28th, 2011 @ 3:23pm

    Sounds like Cameron better find the creators of Dances with Wolves and the Smurfs then, or else he will be screwed.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 3:25pm

    Re:

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 3:28pm

    Is just me or anyone else experience only partial comments loading?

    I just posted a reply to a comment and now that comment is missing.

    Techdirt are you having DB problems?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
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    Ray Trygstad (profile), Dec 28th, 2011 @ 3:30pm

    C'mon!

    My kids nailed it as we walked out of the theater: "Hey, that was just Ferngully In Space!"

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
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    Ima Fish (profile), Dec 28th, 2011 @ 3:40pm

    I'll try this again...

    I think it's funny that people say that Avatar ripped off both Independence Day...

    They both involve invasions from other planets. They both attempt a peaceful solution to the invasion. We and the Na’vi both learn that the invaders are amoral consumers of resources who have destroyed every other planet they’ve/we’ve come into contact with. We and the Na’vi contact other countries/tribes to get them on board for the coming battles. Right before the final battles President Whitmore and Jake Sully give over-the-top impassioned speeches about how the invaders must be defeated to save their planets from eradication. And despite overwhelming odds, we and the Na’vi defeat the invaders using a combination of the invader’s technology with our/their own.

    .... and Pocahontas. Both stories deal with foreigners attacking a less technologically advanced culture and how one of the attackers has to change sides to save the woman he loves.

    But yet no one ever argues that Independence Day ripped Pocahontas. Heck, when H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds, not a single person complained that he stole Pocahontas' life story.

    The same is true of Star Wars. People have claimed that it was merely a ripoff of ancient myths, of Flash Gordon, of the Japanese story The Hidden Fortress, and a retread of a western set in space.

    It should be clear to anyone with a brain that the underlying ideas of the stories are common because they're very popular. And after a while they become so popular for so long, they become universal.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Dec 28th, 2011 @ 3:43pm

    Re:

    Is just me or anyone else experience only partial comments loading?

    I just posted a reply to a comment and now that comment is missing.


    We screwed up. Working on it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 3:55pm

    Re: Re:

    Thank you, now I don't need to get paranoid about being a problem on my side or in somewhere between.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
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    Ima Fish (profile), Dec 28th, 2011 @ 4:03pm

    Re: Re:

    I'm glad I kept a window open of my posting so I didn't have to write it all over again!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
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    Gwiz (profile), Dec 28th, 2011 @ 4:07pm

    Re:

    It should be clear to anyone with a brain that the underlying ideas of the stories are common because they're very popular. And after a while they become so popular for so long, they become universal.

    I agree.

    Just for fun, let's start a list of preexisting works that Avatar might have "stolen" from.

    I submit the movie FernGully: The Last Rainforest

     

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  20.  
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    Gwiz (profile), Dec 28th, 2011 @ 4:16pm

    Re: Re:

    Dang. Just realized someone up above already mentioned Fern Gully. Now I'm stealing stuff too, I guess. Have to think up another one now....

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 4:16pm

    Re: Re:

    Avatar the animated series. But that was mostly for the title.

     

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  22.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 4:35pm

    When regular people sue for this stuff, they get the low court treatment and it likely gets dismissed. When Universal et al sue for something, they get the high court treatment.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 4:36pm

    Re:

    (if we want to curtail IP laws, we need to make sure that everyone gets equal treatment).

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 4:38pm

    and yet the publishers of 2000ad who wrote the story firekind which has the same plot and many many many of the same visuals have not sued.

     

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  25.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 4:51pm

    I gather that techdirt's been having comment problems. So if anyone's already posted the following, please forgive me.

    http://theoatmeal.com/comics/aliens_avatar

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
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    abc gum, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 5:10pm

    Storyline patents, are they dead yet?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
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    Ima Fish (profile), Dec 28th, 2011 @ 5:24pm

    Re: Re:

    Mike, can you delete my re-post? Thanks!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
    identicon
    MrWilson, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 5:34pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    What I mean by universal is that these themes and ideas are based on experiences that many people have had throughout history. They're popular because they have happened and/or are relevant to a lot of people. I know it's chicken-and-the-egg, but I think the universality is the cause of the popularity. Things that aren't universal aren't as likely to remain popular over centuries or millennia.

    To put it another way: Popularity is determined by people. Universality is determined by reality.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
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    JarHead, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 6:28pm

    Recurring Meme

    While I may not have all the info about these lawsuit, I cannot think anyone in the "story" industry could go on screaming "infringing" when there are works like "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" and/or "The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations". There are vastly other works in the field which tells recurring meme in stories, and hollywood blockbusters are only a small subset of it.

    Campbell, Joseph - The Hero with a Thousand Faces

    Polti, Georges - The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations

    If any of these lawsuits fall through, I wonder if anyone could sue Homer's Illiad and/or Odyssey of infringement.

     

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  30.  
    identicon
    Andrew F, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 7:06pm

    Re: Re:

    Also, Pocahontas is a true story, Disneyfication aside.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
    identicon
    Tec_Guy, Dec 28th, 2011 @ 11:28pm

    Funny Story

    So a few weeks ago a friend contacted me over MSN about the movie In Time. To those of you who don't know about it, one of the movie's plot devices is that the actual amount of time that you have left to live can be used as currency. What's funny is that I had written a short story for my creative writing class a couple of years ago that used the same premise. Now whenever we see the trailer in theaters we joke about how I should sue.
    It baffles me that some people with similar situations would actually be stupid enough to sue. So what if they had a similar idea? If I ever decide to use my story as a plot for a movie or whatever in the future, I'm gonna look for ways to surpass In Time and make way more money than I ever would from suing them. Frankly, it wouldn't be very difficult; it wasn't a very good movie.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
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    PaulT (profile), Dec 29th, 2011 @ 12:42am

    Re:

    Yeah... Independence Day was a pretty obvious remake of War Of The Worlds - down to the fact that they decided to shoehorn in the death by virus angle (even though it made no sense) - combined with elements of V / Childhood's End. The only reason Wells' heir didn't sue is probably down to the fact that the book was already public domain.

    As for Avatar, its basic elements were completely unoriginal. Only Cameron's execution of the ideas made it unique (and thus successful). If anyone tries telling me that the story was either original or innovative, I'll assume I'm talking to a moron. That doesn't, however, mean that he ripped anyone off by using those elements, as most of them can be traced back hundreds of years.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 29th, 2011 @ 6:38am

    Re: Re:

    "I submit the movie FernGully: The Last Rainforest"

    Tarzan

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 29th, 2011 @ 8:52am

    Wow, this really surprises me because Avatar was such an original movie. It certainly isn't just a pile of tropes with fancy graphics.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35.  
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    R.M. Griffin, Dec 29th, 2011 @ 11:28am

    Avatar bad

    Some people must be very greedy. Otherwise why would they try to claim ownership of such a nasty load of rubbish?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  36.  
    identicon
    abc gum, Dec 29th, 2011 @ 5:42pm

    Re: Avatar bad

    Heh - it is humorous when people get their knickers in a bind over a stupid movie.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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