Have you ever wondered from where great directors get their ideas? The unfortunate truth is that some of the best stories in cinema are nowhere near original. Some of the most famous directors are equally infamous for the lawsuits piled up against them for copyright infringement, and you might be surprised who makes the cut.
This list details the ten most popular directors who have been sued for their work. Regardless of whether the directors won or lost their lawsuits, they were humbled for a moment by the court of copyright law.
It’s interesting, too, that some of the absolutely most famous directors have been sued numerous times, which begs the question: Do these well-known directors garner their fame by stealing the stories of others? Or are their stories so good that they’ve existed in the minds of others, too? You be the judge this time.
10. Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon’s fame mostly comes from his work on several television series, such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dollhouse,” but his 2012 horror film “The Cabin in the Woods” provided something new for his fans. Unfortunately, the story itself wasn’t new at all.
After the release of this heady and ironic horror flick, both Joss Whedon and the writer for the film, Drew Goddard, found themselves sued for the total of $10 million for copyright infringement. It turns out that there are marked similarities between “The Cabin in the Woods” and “The Little White Trip: A Night in the Pines,” a 2006 novel self-published on Amazon by Peter Gallagher.
Whether or not Whedon and Goddard used Gallagher’s novel as inspiration, Gallagher noticed the patterns and wouldn’t have it. After all, he self-published his novel, whereas Whedon and Goddard created the film on a budget of $30 million, and the film itself then grossed $42 million just through United States box offices.
Ultimately, the case came to a judge who assessed that, “While the two works share a common premise of students travelling to remote locations and subsequently being murdered, real or otherwise, that premise is unprotectable. The concept of young people venturing off to such locations and being murdered by some evil force is common in horror films.”
In the end, the case was dismissed. Whedon and Goddard got off with no charges, while Gallagher had to pay court fees.
9. Christopher Nolan
With a film like “The Dark Knight” that grossed over $994 million worldwide, it’s not surprising that someone had issue with the film and wanted a cut of the money. What is surprising is who sued about the film and why.
Christopher Nolan’s fame as a director is undebatable, as his artistic hand marks such psychological thrillers as “Memento,” “Following,” “Interstellar,” and “The Prestige,” as well as more popular films in the superhero genre like “Man of Steel,” “Batman Begins,” and “The Dark Knight.” Still, he remains the one of the most committed directors when it comes to telling the story of the Batman, aka Bruce Wayne.
Interestingly, despite “The Dark Knight’s” stellar performance in the global box office, Heath Ledger’s death was not the only one connected to the story. In a town called Batman in southeastern Turkey, an exponential number of people – particularly women – have committed suicide since the release of “The Dark Knight,” and the mayor of Batman said Nolan’s film is to blame. For reparations, Huseyin Kalkan, the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party mayor of Batman, demanded money from Nolan for his disrespectful use of the town’s name and for the deaths of so many Turkish people by suicide or crime violence after the film’s release.
Ultimately, the lawsuit never fully went to court, but Kalkan’s point is true, which is that the director, writer, and film studio did actually use the name of his town in Turkey without its peoples’ permission, and that erasure of Batmanian humanity is connected to the loss of many lives. Although the town of Batman existed decades before the first Batman comics, the town and its people received nothing.
This psychological impact of a popular film may not be commonly thought of, but it has absolutely devastated the town of Batman in Turkey, and they still got nothing for their pain.
8. Seth MacFarlane
Seth MacFarlane uses popular culture and people as tropes in his well-known television series “American Dad” and “Family Guy,” and his 2012 film “Ted” did the same…to a problematic degree. In the case of “Ted,” the energetic, scathing, living teddy bear who stars in MacFarlane’s production is not an original character.
Turns out that “Ted” essentially existed in web series as “Charlie” almost a decade before MacFarlane even dreamed up the “Ted” idea, and the creators of the web series would not allow MacFarlane to suck up profits without a fight. From the perspective of the Charlie creators, MacFarlane’s loud-mouthed, vice-ridden, drug-addicted teddy bear protagonist is exactly like their Charlie, who’s an equally loud-mouthed, vice-ridden, and drug-addicted teddy bear.
In 2014, Bengal Mangle Productions LLC out of California brought the lawsuit to MacFarlane, citing “noted similarities” between their Charlie and his Ted. Unfortunately, the cost to maintain the lawsuit burdened Bengal Mangle so much that they ended up not being able to pursue the case (aka MacFarlane won). For Bengal Mangle, it seems, the sheer fact that they could link and associate Ted with Charlie became enough; the confirmed connection satisfied them in the end.
Clearly, Bengal Mangle’s lawsuit and its subsequent loss to MacFarlane did nothing to dampen his spirits with the Ted story, for “Ted 2” was then released in 2015. And there’s been no fresh lawsuit from Bengal Mangle to speak of.
7. The Wachowskis
The Wachowskis are an interesting pair of directors, both working together to produce intriguing and visually stunning films, such as “The Matrix” trilogy, “Cloud Atlas,” and “Jupiter Ascending.” Additionally, both are transgender, having come out years apart from one another but consistently supporting one another as sisters. The formerly-Wachowski Brothers are both out now as Lilly and Lana, but their happy, free lives don’t negate the fact that their “Matrix” trilogy is likely anything but theirs.
In 2003, the Wachowskis, along with Joel Silver and Warner Bros., were sued by Sophia Stewart, a woman who claimed she’d written and submitted some treatments and manuscripts to 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. back in the 1980s that were rejected then but were now being plagiarized on the silver screen. In specific, she was frustrated about how the Wachowskis and Warner Bros. used an afro-futurist idea of hers called “The Third Eye” for what became “The Matrix” (you’ll see her name again in reference to 20th Century Fox and James Cameron later in the list!).
Several rumors have made their rounds regarding whether Stewart won “The Matrix” lawsuit, and even more rumors circulate about whether or not she was even right to sue, but those who have read her original treatment and manuscript “The Third Eye” see enough similarity in plot, themes, concept, characters, and conflicts that it’s clear Stewart’s story was stolen.
The question then becomes how the court treated this issue and who exactly stole the story. If it was the Wachowskis, it seems that the courts didn’t see enough similarity to grant Stewart her claim, but she did receive several hundreds of thousands of dollars later by suing the lawyer who lost her that lawsuit in the first place.
The Wachowskis and Warner Bros. were actually sued twice over “The Matrix,” and the second time arose due to the two sequels to the first installment. Film writer Thomas Althouse sued the group for upwards of $300 million for copying a play he wrote in 1993 titled “The Immortals.” However, the judge ruled against Althouse, to the Wachowskis’ favor. The stories, once again, were deemed too dissimilar to be stolen. What a coincidence.
6. Guillermo del Toro
Whereas many directors remain tightlipped when accused of plagiarism, Guillermo del Toro bravely faces the world and affirms his own reputation. He claims an immaculate history of work using only unique and original ideas, and when he was served a lawsuit against his recent film “The Shape of Water,” he says he was appalled.
Unfortunately, “The Shape of Water” does resemble at least three works to a large degree, but whether del Toro knew that upon directing the film is unclear. The three works in question arose first in 1969 with a play called “Let Me Hear You Whisper” by Paul Zindel – a Pulitzer Prize winning author who died in 2003 – then in 1990 when that play was adapted into a TV movie starring Jean Stapleton, and finally in 2015 with a Dutch short film titled “The Space Between Us.”
Fox Searchlight and del Toro seem to have worked together against the two main lawsuits they have accrued over “The Shape of Water.” The first lawsuit came from the team that created “The Space Between Us,” but that lawsuit was dropped, and the team speaks very favorably of the arrangement (i.e.—someone got paid very well under the table). The second lawsuit is still up for debate and comes from David Zindel, Paul’s son, who states that he respects and admires the film, but it’s too similar to his father’s play to ignore.
Del Toro and Fox Searchlight recently filed a motion to dismiss all charges since they deem the stories too dissimilar to be of consequence, and the hearing for that motion is set for later this month. We’ll have to wait and see what happens!