Cameron KO’s Roger Dean in Avatar Suit

A U.S. District Court in New York has dismissed Roger Dean’s lawsuit against James Cameron: Dean had claimed aspects of the Avatar planet Pandora were stolen from his artwork.

dean-asia-cover__130629021944Dean’s art has appeared on top-selling record albums by many bands, among them Yes and Asia, been displayed in museums and published in books. And when Dean’s suit was announced last year, Harlan Ellison, who won a settlement from Cameron over Terminator in the 1980s, said he was eager to testify in Dean’s behalf. (He wasn’t called upon.)

Judge Jesse M. Furman wrote in his decision that some of the similarities between Dean’s work and elements of Avatar are due to both drawing on images in nature, which is in the public domain, while other elements in Dean’s works that are protectible are overwhelmed by the differences between them and the scenes in the movie.

For example, the “Hallelujah Mountains” [in Avatar] are depicted, in photorealistic detail, as massive floating islands of different shapes and sizes densely blanketed with plants, trees, and other vegetation. By contrast, Plaintiff’s works are more stylized and fantastical, featuring smaller, egg-shaped islands —more akin to large boulders than mountains —with little or no vegetation other than a prominent, solitary tree almost as large as the island itself.

Dean’s loss is just the latest in an uninterrupted series of rulings against plaintiffs who claimed they were owed money or ought to receive damages for the use of their work in Avatar.

Kelly Van sued Cameron in 2010 saying Avatar was based on his 2003 book Sheila the Warrior: the Damned. His case was thrown out of court by a judge who said the “plot similarities are abstract ideas that are not protected by copyright.”

In 2013, courts dismissed claims by Eric Ryder, who alleged the movie ripped off his story K.R.Z. 2068, described as an “environmentally-themed 3-D epic about a corporation’s colonization and plundering of a distant moon’s lush and wondrous natural setting,” and by Gerald Morawski, who had sued for breach of contract, fraud and negligent misrepresentation because he had pitched a project to Cameron’s people titled Guardians of Eden and that he signed a nondisclosure agreement which expressly provided that he would retain his original ideas.

Cameron has also won cases brought by Emil Malak, claiming the film infringed his 1998 screenplay Terra Incognita, and Bryant Moore, arguing his screenplays and drawings had been used to create Avatar.

Reportedly the statute of limitations for filing copyright infringement claims expired in December 2012. However, there may be different limits for other causes of action that might leave the door open for more suits.

Avatar has been a litigation magnet since earning nearly $2.8 billion in box-office receipts. It’s reputed to be the top earning movie of all time, although an interesting footnote in the Dean decision, quoting the scholarly book Principles of Macroeconomics, questions the #1 ranking:

“Movie popularity is usually gauged by box office receipts. By that measure, Avatar is the number 1 movie of all time with domestic receipts of $761 million . . . . But this ranking ignores an obvious but important fact: Prices, including those of movie tickets, have been rising over time. Inflation gives an advantage to newer films. When we correct box office receipts for the effects of inflation . . . [t]he number 1 movie is now Gone With the Wind ($1,604 million) . . . . Avatar falls to number 14.”

5 thoughts on “Cameron KO’s Roger Dean in Avatar Suit

  1. has had a list of movie “Domestic Grosses Adjusted for Ticket Price Inflation” for years. I look at that list and nod that yes, those are the massively popular American movies that I would expect.

    (Of the top 20: Lucas has 4 Star Wars films. Spielberg has 3 SF/Fantasy films plus Jaws (non-genre); Cameron has 2, with “Avatar” as the genre film. 8 of the top 20 best-selling American movies (by inflation-adjusted box office) are SF/Fantasy films.)

  2. In these law suits we see a fundamental problem emerging from the concept of intellectual property … how is it possible to create *anything* when two centuries of novels, poetry, music, cinema, painting and other cultural products loom over the contemporary creator, to sue at moment’s notice? It is very difficult to create something that is entirely new. As well, there is far too much for anyone to be aware of what to avoid. Yet we have Disney suing a rap artist for wearing a mouse head that vaguely resembles Mickey Mouse, as though there was another way to depict a cartoon mouse than a head with two ears. Or is it the circle that Disney claims to have a copyright on? Our predecessors had no such problem. If you wanted to write (or paint or versify) about Santa Claus, Napoleon or Paul of Damascus, you went ahead and did it, without fear that Coca Cola wouldn’t sue you for infringement of their copyright on Christmas. But that’s all changed now, I guess, as corporations find ways of extending their rights from a limited time to an indefinite one.

    In any case, I won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of this particular case. Maybe Cameron was borrowing heavily from Roger Dean. At first glance, though, all I see is a fantasy jungle landscape, and surely that’s no one’s intellectual property. Floating islands are not new to Roger Dean, either. If he thinks so, he should tell Jonathan Swift, who wrote about the floating island of Laputa in 1726.

  3. Spider Robinson addressed the issue Taral raises here, years ago in his story “Melancholy Elephants”.

  4. This sounds like the Dean Preston lawsuit, where a writer from Vancouver claimed he had invented the Ewoks in 1978, sent a script to LucasFilms, and heard no more of it until he saw a license plate saying “EWOKS” in 1982. He sued, and lost.

    Probably just as well that the guy here in Louisville who claimed he had made up the entire concept of “Jedis” while playing pirates around 1970 never found anyone to back him up . . .

  5. The headline

    Cameron KO’s Roger Dean in Avatar Suit

    had me believing, for a moment, that the celebrated album-cover artist had gone en rapport with a ten-foot blue alien body, and that James Cameron– despite being much shorter– had managed to deck him.

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