In Hollywood, it takes a lot to find a new story to bring to the big screen these days. After all, over the past century, haven't most stories worth telling already been told?
That's why it's not uncommon to see certain plot-lines repeated over the decades, with writers actively borrowing from each other to further their own projects. However, while it's one thing to adapt or put a new spin on a classic, it's a completely different thing to steal someone else's work.
When it comes to Hollywood, plagiarism continues to be a widespread problem in the industry — so much so, in fact, that even the following iconic movies have come head-to-head with a scandal or two in the past.
1. Nosferatu (1922)
- Director: F.W. Murnau
When vampire flick Nosferatu came out in 1922, it did many things for the genre — not only did it become one of the first and greatest horror movies ever made, but also a true copyright horror story in its own right.
And it's kind of obvious as to why. In the early twenties, once the movie was released, Bram Stoker's widow was far from pleased at how little the Nosferatu plot deviated from her late husband's masterpiece Dracula. And although the book was already in the public domain in the US, the work was still copyright in Europe until 1962 and she refused to sell the filmmakers the rights.
Turning a blind eye to this though, film producer Albin Grau went forward with production, believing it would be enough to make several changes to the original storyline to dodge a copyright lawsuit. He was wrong — soon after Nosferatu hit cinemas in 1922, Stoker's estate sued with claims of copyright infringement.
Since changing the ending wasn't enough (in the movie, exposed to sunlight, the vampire burns to death) and the fact that earlier versions of the film still referred to Count Orlok as "Dracula," Grau lost his case, forced to declare bankruptcy and close his film company Prana Film. Meanwhile, all copies of the movie were ordered to be destroyed.
How Did Nosferatu Rise From The Ashes?
Although the movie was destroyed on a wide scale in Europe, one copy made it to America, where Dracula was already in the public domain. These days, all such copies of the Nosferatu come from this one duplicate and as Stoker's copyright rights to the novel have now run out, the horror classic is available all over the world.
As of 2015, it's even Rotten Tomatoes' second best-reviewed horror film of all time.
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2. Avatar (2009)
- Director: James Cameron
In 2009, Avatar hit the big screens and swiftly became one of the most groundbreaking cinematic experience in recent times — especially if you're wearing 3D glasses, that is. Admittedly, most of us really enjoyed James Cameron's masterpiece but deep in the backs of our minds, there was always the niggling thought that we had seen the storyline somewhere before. Here's the trailer:
One of the most notable plagiarism suits following the release of Avatar came from screenwriter Bryant Moore, who insisted that the movie borrowed heavily from two of his screenplays titled Aquatica and Descendants: The Pollination. Seeking $2.5 million in damages, he took on Cameron, Lightstorm Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation over copyright claims.
Moore's argument is that in the early '90s, he submitted these screenplays to Cameron's film company, which were rejected. Years later, "striking substantial similarities" cropped up in Avatar.
"Avatar Was My Most Personal Film"
A couple of years ago the lawsuit as dismissed by a U.S. District court judge and Cameron was once again forced to make a statement, saying:
“Sadly, a cottage industry has arisen of fortune hunting plaintiffs seeking to ‘strike it rich’ by claiming their ideas were the basis for ‘Avatar.' 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.”
Still, over the years, Avatar has come up against a myriad of lawsuits from all corners of the globe. Here's a summary of the some of the most memorable, which are still proceeding or have already been dismissed:
- A Canadian restaurant owner claimed the movie was a rip-off of his 1998 screenplay Terra Incognita. He claimed the piece was sent to Lightstorm Entertainment in 2002 and focuses on a tribe with tails and braided hair that live around a magical tree of collective memories.
- Eric Ryder, Cameron's former employee at Lightstorm, argued that the concept was directly taken from a story he had written called K.R.Z. 2068.
- Elijah Schkeiban sued claiming the movie was based on his novel, Bats and Butterflies.
- Chinese author Zhou Shaomou also declared Avatar was taken from his work The Legend of the Blue Crow.
- Artist William Roger Dean similarly alleged Cameron stoles ideas from 14 of his paintings, including its biosphere and several of its alien creatures.
As you can tell, the list seems endless but as of yet, no legitimate lawsuit is currently threatening James Cameron's plans to roll out two more Avatar sequels.
3. The Terminator (1984)
Director: James Cameron
With its impressive action scenes, leathery leading man Arnold Schwarzenegger, and an array of some of the most iconic movie quotes in Hollywood, it's easy to see why 1984's The Terminator is such a big hit. However, although we may know the storyline back-to-front, what many fans might not know is that the blockbuster got itself in quite a bit of a trouble with regards to plagiarism.
When the movie came out, well-renowned writer Harlan Ellison admitted that he "loved the movie" and "was just blown away by it." Having sung his praises tough, he also claimed that the screenplay was heavily based on a short story he had written, titled "Soldier." As a result, Ellison sued for infringement and James Cameron was thrown into the shit storm once again.
"I Frankly Don't Care"
Following a tense court battle, Orion Pictures settled in 1986 and were made to pay the author an undisclosed amount of money, including recognition credits in all future copies of The Terminator. Years later, and James Cameron was still adamant that although he had always been against the decision, he simply had to agree to the settlement — apparently, if he did not, he would have had to pay all damages himself if Orion lost the lawsuit. In an interview, he said:
"[I] had no choice but to agree with the settlement. Of course there was a gag order as well, so I couldn't tell this story, but now I frankly don't care. It's the truth."
Hopefully you care enough not get yourself in a mess like this again, Mr. Cameron!