Judge tosses ‘Avatar’ copyright claims against James Cameron

A federal judge has tossed a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by a science fiction writer alleging director James Cameron stole two of his screenplays for the blockbuster movie “Avatar.”

Bryant Moore, who sought over $2 billion in damages, did not establish that Cameron or his production company, Lightstorm Entertainment, had access to his copyrighted screenplays or that “Avatar” was substantially similar to his works, according to Judge Roger W. Titus of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.

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He denied Moore’s motion for summary judgment and granted the defendants’ motion.

“Avatar,” released in 2009, received both critical and popular acclaim, winning three Academy Awards and a Golden Globe and grossing $2.8 billion .

According to Judge Titus’ opinion, prior to the release of the movie, Moore wrote two screenplays: “Aquatica,” registered with the U.S. Copyright Office in 1994, and “Descendants: The Pollination,” registered in 2003 .

(Click here to read the opinion on Westlaw.)

Moore says he sent “Aquatica” and “Descendants” to an executive of Lightstorm  in 2003,.

In his complaint, Moore described striking similarities between his works and “Avatar,” including the opening scene’s bioluminescent plant life and the relationship between the heroes and heroines.

The similarities also allegedly included a hero who leaves a former military life to participate in hybrid scientific-military exploration, a military-technical collaboration, a search for rare and valuable natural resources, and genetically created and engineered beings.

Moore alleged breach of implied contract and copyright infringement with respect to both of his screenplays .

Judge Titus dismissed the contract claims last August because they were preempted by the copyright allegations.

Both Moore and the defendants moved for summary judgment on the remaining copyright claims.

Judge Titus said that in order to prevail on his motion, Moore had to demonstrate that the defendants had access to his screenplays, meaning they had a reasonable opportunity to view or copy the screenplays before creating “Avatar.”

The judge concluded that Moore’s allegations of access were too speculative to entitle him to summary judgment.  The mere fact that a script was sent to a production company was insufficient to infer access by everyone in the company, the judge said.

Even if Moore established that Cameron had access, summary judgment was appropriate for the defendants because the works were not substantially similar, the judge said.

To demonstrate substantial similarity, Moore had to survive a two-part analysis.  First, he had to show that that there was similarity between elements such as plot, theme, characters, setting and dialog, mood and pace.

Second, he had to show there was substantial similarity in how the ideas in the works are expressed.

Although there were some limited commonalities between the works, they extended only to stock ideas and themes that are common in the science fiction/action genres and not subject to copyright protection, the judge said.

Moore v. Lightstorm Entertainment et al., No. 11-CV-3644, 2014 WL 201579 (D. Md. Jan. 17, 2014).