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Md. author loses ‘Avatar’ copyright suit

Just like James Cameron’s fictional alien characters protected their home planet in “Avatar,” the movie’s director has shielded himself from a Maryland author’s copyright infringement lawsuit.

Avatar_Fox_webA U.S. District Court judge in Greenbelt has ruled in favor of Cameron and his production company, Lightstorm Entertainment Inc., after author Bryant Moore claimed they had substantially borrowed from his unproduced screenplays to create the 2009 blockbuster movie.

Judge Roger W. Titus granted Cameron’s motion for summary judgment, holding there was no evidence that Cameron or Lightstorm had ever read Moore’s screenplays and that any similarities between the movie and Moore’s works were common science fiction themes and not eligible for copyright protection.

Titus also denied Moore’s motion for summary judgment and closed the case in an order signed Friday.

Moore “made an incredible effort to show, with finite resources — meaning Hollywood vs. the little guy — there were copyright issues,” said his attorney, Donald M. Temple of Temple Law Offices in Washington. “We respect the court’s decision. We think James Cameron’s affidavit had a lot of credibility holes. The court’s decision is what it is.”

Access

“Avatar,” set in the future on another planet, was released in December 2009 and grossed more than $2.78 billion in box office earnings.

Moore, of College Park, wrote “Aquatica” between 1992 and 1994 and copyrighted it in 1994. He wrote “Descendants: The Pollination” between 2002 and 2003 and registered it at the U.S. Copyright Office in 2003.

Cameron allegedly finished a basic script for “Avatar” no later than March 1996, but saved it for more than 10 years as he waited for film technology to catch up to his ideas.

Moore claimed that Cameron, Lightstorm and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., which produced and distributed the movie, had seen his works because he had sent the screenplay for “Aquatica” to Lightstorm several times between 1994 and 1996 and both works to Cameron’s business manager between 2003 and 2005.

Cameron and his manager said the company received the screenplays, but they never got past the lower-level review process. Titus found it was “mere speculation” for Moore to claim that Cameron and Lightstorm had access to them.

“[T]he mere fact that a script was sent to a production company is insufficient to infer access by everyone at that company,” the judge wrote.

Since the movie was made, there have been a number of copyright lawsuits filed against Cameron. Most have been dismissed.

Temple said his client was disappointed in the order overall and shocked by the judge’s decision regarding access.

“This is the only ‘Avatar’ case where there is an access question,” Temple said. “… They received the script. They put it in the library. No access?”

One of Cameron and Lightstorm’s attorneys, Matt Williams of Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP in Washington, declined to comment on the case. However, a statement issued Tuesday by 20th Century Fox included quotes from Cameron.

“Sadly, a cottage industry has arisen of fortune hunting plaintiffs seeking to ‘strike it rich’ by claiming their ideas were the basis for ‘Avatar,’” Cameron’s statement said. “As I have previously stated, ‘Avatar’ was my most personal film, drawing upon themes and concepts that I had been exploring for decades. Our film was also the product of a team of some of the world’s most creative artists and designers, and it is an insult to all of them when these specious claims are made.”

Similarities alleged

In Moore’s “Aquatica,” two factions are warring against each other in an underwater world. In “Pollination,” two groups of humans are fighting each other when a woman from one group falls in love with the leader of the opposition group and the two join forces to defeat her original faction.

“Avatar,” meanwhile, is the story of a paraplegic ex-Marine who works for a corporation mining a fictional planet for resources. Using technology of the future, the man is able to plug into the body of the native alien species on the planet. He then falls in love with one of the native women, joins them to defeat the greedy corporation and chooses to become part of the species himself.

Titus noted some general plot similarities between the movie and the screenplays, like love connections between individuals on two warring sides.

“This type of broad plot similarity is, however, clearly not protected expression,” Titus wrote.

Moore also claimed the settings for “Pollination” are similar to those in “Avatar,” including a “bioluminescent mega-forest” and “gargantuan, alien flora and super trees.” Cameron and Lightstorm, however, noted the setting is also found in other movies, like the “Lord of the Rings” series and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

And while “Pollination” and “Avatar” each had an over-50 female scientist who wore an arrow-shaped necklace and both works have characters in wheelchairs, Titus found the comparisons “insufficient to suggest substantial similarity.”

Titus also found that while “Aquatica” and “Pollination” were “action-packed war stories,” the movie “Avatar” only has one large battle scene at the end.

“A review of the filings, both parties’ expert reports, and the works themselves makes clear that there are no substantial similarities to be found in any of the relevant elements,” Titus wrote. “Any similarities are limited to general stock themes, scenes a faire and ideas not subject to copyright protection.”

 

‘Why the Eastern Sea?’

Moore also claimed eight literal similarities between his works and the movie, including the characters’ use of 3-D yellow and green holographic maps and a scene in which main characters speak to a group of people gathered by the “Eastern Sea.”

“I don’t think, for example, the Eastern Sea scene with the protagonist talking to a crowd of people is something that that would naturally occur in an action drama film,” Temple said. “Why the Eastern Sea?”

Moore also alleged a similarity between his description of trees in “Pollination” and those in “Avatar.”

Moore described trees that have large inflatable tops shaped like tires with spokes and a “trampoline” mesh between them. In “Avatar,” Cameron described trees as places were families slept on hammocks “the size of trampolines” and hunters slept along “spokes” joined to the trunk.

“Despite use of the words ‘spoke’ and ‘trampoline’ in each, this is not the type of literal or quasi-literal similarity that necessitates a finding of copying, nor is this description a ‘qualitatively important or crucial’ element of either work,” Titus wrote.

Titus ultimately held “Avatar” was an independent creation, pointing to evidence submitted by Cameron of his past projects that he drew on when writing “Avatar,” like an essay from college and a sketch he drew in high school similar to a large tree in the movie.

Moore, who filed his complaint in December 2011, had asked for damages and profits in excess of $1.5 billion, a preliminary and permanent injunction stopping Cameron and Lightstorm from further infringing on his copyrighted material, declaratory relief, punitive damages in excess of $1 billion, statutory damages and attorney’s fees.

In March 2013, Titus dismissed all but the two copyright infringement counts he ruled on last week.

The case is Moore v. Lightstorm Entertainment et al., #RWT-11-cv-3644, U.S. District Court (Greenbelt).