In a decision issued yesterday, Judge Furman dismissed a lawsuit alleging that director James Cameron infringed the copyrights of artist William Roger Dean in Cameron’s blockbuster movie Avatar. The artist, whose work has graced the covers of many major rock albums, claimed that many of the movie’s fantastical settings are copied from 14 works he produced between 1972 and 2007.
As Judge Furman explained:
The details of Jake’s [the movie’s hero] adventures are ultimately irrelevant to the present dispute, so there is no need to spoil the plot of the movie for someone who has not seen it. Instead, what is relevant is the film’s mise-en-scène: Pandora’s “fully envisioned ecosystem” of brightly colored and luminescent flora and fauna. Defendants describe the biosphere as “simultaneously fantastic yet realistically[ ]rendered based on what appears in nature and grounded in scientific feasibility.” Plaintiff, for his part, alleges that he sees avatars of his own work in Avatar’s biosphere. The Amended Complaint does not specify which parts of the film constitute “[t]he infringing portions of Avatar.” But from a review of the parties’ memoranda of law and the artwork that Plaintiff alleges to have been infringed, it appears that there are five aspects of Avatar’s ecosystem in dispute: (1) the “Hallelujah Mountains” (2) the “Stone Arches”; (3) the “Hometree”; (4) the “Tree of Voices” and the “Tree of Souls”; and (5) some Pandoran wildlife, including “banshees,” “thanators,” “wolf-like predators,” “six-legged horse-like creatures,” and “woodsprites, small, bioluminescent jelly-fishlike creatures.”
Judge Furman disagreed. He analyzed, and found wanting, what he believed to be the plaintiff’s “most compelling argument for substantial similarity: the comparison between Avatar’s “Hallelujah Mountains” and Plaintiff’s works featuring floating islands”:
The works are indisputably similar insofar as they present the natural world in a fantastical way by depicting airborne land masses. But Plaintiff does not have a monopoly on the idea of floating or airborne land, an idea that has been around since at least 1726, when Jonathan Swift published his classic Gulliver’s Travels. See also, e.g., Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven, on Led Zeppelin IV (Atlantic Records 1971). Suspending a landmass is a predictable — if not common — way to make a vista more sweeping, breathtaking, and fantastical, and is plainly subject to both the principle that ideas are not protected and the doctrine of scènes à faire. Put simply, Plaintiff cannot copyright the idea of levitation, a trope often used to suggest a magical or fantastic realm, cf. Williams, 84 F.3d at 589 (“[P]lacing dinosaurs on a prehistoric island far from the mainland amounts to no more than a scene a faire in a dinosaur adventure story.”), and a common feature of films utilizing three-dimensional technology, such as Avatar, cf. Bernard Mendiburu, 3D Movie Making: Stereoscopic Digital Cinema from Script to Screen 20 (2009) (“[I]n a 3D movie, objects are seen as floating around the space, but are actually shown and looked at on the screen.”).
Judge Furman dismissed the suit in its entirety, concluding:
In short, limiting the analysis to the protectible elements of Plaintiff’s works and reviewing the relevant works as a whole, with “good eyes and common sense,” the Court “confidently conclude[s] that no average lay observer would recognize” Avatar “as having been appropriated from the copyrighted work.” Peter F. Gaito Architecture, 602 F.3d at 66-67 (internal quotation marks omitted). The commentators cited by Plaintiff may well be correct that Defendants — wittingly or unwittingly — took some inspiration from Plaintiff, or even copied elements of his works in making their film. But many Hollywood movies take their inspiration from other movies or works — or go even further — without running afoul of the Copyright Act.
(H/t Deadline Hollywood.)