5. Quentin Tarantino
As one of the top directors of today, Quentin Tarantino has appeared in many lawsuits over time and several of them were about his films in one way or another. Despite the overt (and comedic) gore favored by Tarantino and his penchant for disturbing themes, however, only one lawsuit appears on his record putting him at fault for copyright infringement for one of his films: “Django Unchained.”
Released in 2012, “Django Unchained” did extremely well in the box office, but the story apparently comes from the annals of the Writers Guild of America…without permission of its authors. In 2004, two men – father and son, Oscar Colvin, Jr. and Torrence J. Colvin – registered a screenplay called “Freedom” with the Writers Guild of America, took it to the CAA (Creative Artists Agency) and the William Morris talent agency. They claim they’d even posted the script on a reputable site online, and then low and behold! It appears in fully-fledged film form less than a decade later.
Columbia, the Weinstein Corporation, and Tarantino all have declined to comment about the lawsuit, which seems pretty strange and equally suspicious. Ultimately, it’s hard to tell what came of the trial because the internet’s paper trail dies around the beginning of 2016.
Regardless of who won or if the case was dismissed, the Colvins’ script does contain marked and undeniable similarities with Tarantino’s film, and even though Tarantino states that his “Django Unchained” is only inspired by Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti western “Django,” the Colvins’ lawsuit argues that “Django Unchained” is actually far more similar to their “Freedom” than Corbucci’s adventure flick.
Tarantino may be a favorite among film enthusiasts, but the evidence against him piles up in this case. After all, who can trust a director who admits that he steals from his own films? The Colvins were likely onto something, and they deserve at least part of the “hundreds of millions of dollars” they sued for.
4. George Lucas
George Lucas, noted for the “Star Wars” enterprise, has been the subject and claimant of several lawsuits over his now-famous science fiction world. While a good number of the lawsuits were instigated by Lucasfilm – now owned by Disney – to protect the rights of Lucas and his “Star Wars,” at least one instance appears where Lucas himself was sued for stealing another man’s art.
Characters called Imperial Walkers appeared in Lucas’s 1980 “Star Wars” film, “The Empire Strikes Back,” but their appearance was apparently far from original. Artist Lee Seiler sued Lucas and Lucasfilm in 1983 over his drawings of “Garthian Striders,” which first appeared in 1976.
Unfortunately, by the time Seiler brought the issue to Lucas, his original works of art had been destroyed in a recent flood (he claimed), so there was no way to provide concrete proof of his rights. Seiler attempted to make recreations of the originals, and he hoped they would withstand the scrutiny of the court, but the judge ultimately ruled that Seiler must have destroyed his art purposefully. The court sided with Lucasfilm, and that was that.
3. Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese is indisputably famous for his long history of stellar films, ranging from “Taxi Driver” to “The Age of Innocence,” “The Departed,” “Silence,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” among others. These last two, however, have a rather checkered past when it comes to their content.
When Cecchi Gori Pictures, an Italian film production company, made moves in later 2016 to declare bankruptcy after being convicted of financial crimes, the company’s executives claimed that several films were deceitfully transferred to other film production agencies and directors over the past few decades when they should not have been.
Martin Scorsese had benefitted from this breech in Cecchi Gori’s management by earning the story that would become “Silence.” “Silence” then took 26 years to complete due to legal battles over the rights, the screenplay, the speed of production, and more, but when it came down to it, Cecchi Gori tried to reclaim the rights when they were in a rough patch. The final time Cecchi Gori sued Scorsese, the court case ended with a settlement between the two groups, and this agreement must have benefitted both parties because “Silence” was able to be fully released in the end.
Paramount Pictures and Martin Scorsese were also sued over “The Wolf of Wall Street” in a defamation case they say they were prepared for from the start of the film’s production. Andrew Greene, formerly on the board of directors of Stratton Oakmont (the brokerage firm featured in “The Wolf”), didn’t like how he was portrayed in Scorsese’s film, as the character meant to be him is blindly portrayed as a man without morals who’s addicted to drugs, a careless criminal, and a blatant misogynist.
Unsurprisingly, Greene’s current coworkers saw the similarities too, so that coloring on his character had apparently influenced his reputation, work life, and love life, and he wasn’t having it. Ultimately, it seems that the case was dismissed for a lack of jurisdiction over the matter, so the reputation shift must not have affected Greene all that badly.
2. Steven Spielberg
As mentioned above, it so happens that some of the most famous directors also have the largest number of lawsuits against them in copyright court, and Steven Spielberg is a great example of this occurrence. Spielberg has been sued for at least four films and a television series, in different aspects but all nodding towards unoriginality of story.
“Disturbia” knocks off a famous and overdone narrative concept from 1954 called “Rear Window” by Alfred Hitchcock that was already remade in 1998 starring Christopher Reeves (originally based on the 1942 short story “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich). “Disturbia’s” plot, characters, and themes are undeniably similar to Hitchcock’s portrayal of Woolrich’s idea, and the lawsuit against Spielberg & Co. stated as much. Unfortunately for the Woolrich estate that served the lawsuit, the judge ruled that the stories were too dissimilar to count as plagiarized.
Similarly, Spielberg, Michael Crichton, and Warner Bros. were sued over “Twister” in 1996, marking the first time Spielberg was fully taken to court over a copyright claim (most claims like this are settled before reaching court or dismissed by a judge beforehand for lack of evidence or jurisdiction).
Stephen Kessler argued that “Twister” was unequivocally based on his screenplay “Catch the Wind,” demanding – with evidence – that his script was delivered to Warner Bros. in 1989, long before “Twister” was written. Because both the plaintiff’s and defendant’s lawyers stated their respective clients’ inspirations for their stories came from the same PBS “Nova” program on tornadoes in Oklahoma, the information was deemed public knowledge. Spielberg, Crichton, and Warner Bros. ended up winning their case this time.
One other film of note is Spielberg’s 2008 “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” A reputable archaeologist from Belize insisted that the film capitalizes on something that was stolen long ago from his country and culture: a real-life, ancient crystal skull artifact. Dr. Jaime Awe demanded in court that the likeness of the crystal skull in the film is exact with the records Belize still has of their ancient artifact that had been stolen almost 100 years ago by so-called adventurers.
The case claimed, too, that Spielberg and Lucasfilm were never granted rights to share the skull’s likeness, nor did they provide any profits from the film to benefit Belizean communities. The claimant also ended up suing the so-called adventuring family for the skull back, but both cases were dismissed, which is heart-breaking for Awe’s community and for his area of study.
There are rumors of other stories being plagiarized by Spielberg, but the authors never took their cases to court because they likely reached a settlement with Spielberg in other ways beforehand. Stories like “Amistad” and “Small Soldiers” fit this description, among others, certainly, that are less easily searched online.
1. James Cameron
It would be impossible to detail the extent of court cases brought to James Cameron over copyright issues here, for they are simply far too numerous. In this context then, it’s relevant to list that Cameron was sued almost ten times over “Avatar,” three times for the first “Terminator” film (once by Sophia Stewart, for stealing an idea of hers), at least once for “Terminator 2,” at least twice for “Titanic,” and for his TV series “Dark Angel.”
If you’ve seen “Avatar,” you likely were immediately reminded of Disney’s “Pocahontas,” which is ironically the one organization that didn’t sue Cameron for copyright infringement. Regardless, the story is incredibly familiar, and the art that Cameron uses is, too, depending on what type of artists you like to view. Many science fiction book and film enthusiasts may have recognized that much of “Avatar’s” art came from elsewhere in sci-fi universes, and at least four of “Avatar’s” lawsuits come from artists reclaiming their work.
For a film like “Titanic,” it seems Cameron once again stole art along with concept. One lawsuit came from a photographer whose photoshoot had inspired the scene where Jack sketches Rose nude, while the other lawsuit came from a man who truly lived the life portrayed by Cameron’s male protagonist, Jack.. Both cases were settled before actually appearing in court. Gotta love that under-the-table rumor squelching.
When it comes to the “Terminator” films, people across the world claim Cameron’s ideas were originally theirs. Each time, the court rules to dismiss the case, or Cameron & Co. settles with the claimant before the case reaches trial, effectively erasing the issue from public eye. Furthermore, when Cameron copied a well-known comic book to make his “Dark Angel” TV series, no royalties were paid to the original artists until after they took their case to court.
Overall, it seems that nothing makes a director pay up quite like rubbing their reputation in the gutter does. Unfortunately for the rest of us, it’s clear that many still love Cameron, Spielberg, Tarantino, etc. in spite of their intellectual thievery, so even suing a director doesn’t affect their fame all that much. Welcome to Celebrity Capitalism, where you can buy royalties after stealing them and still be loved. What a world.