Lawsuits against movies and filmmakers often stem from copyright infringement, plagiarism, or inaccurate details surrounding true events. In some cases, a lawsuit is filed as a quick way to get a piece of a widely popular movie’s box office gross. Here are eight movies that led to legal action.
1. Captain Phillips (2013)
The Lawsuit: The crew of the MV Maersk Alabama vs. Waterman Steamship Corporation and Maersk Line, Limited
The latest film from British director Paul Greengrass tells the heroic story of Captain Richard Phillips, the captain of the MV Maersk Alabama, and his ordeal when Somali pirates hijacked his cargo ship in 2009.
While the film version of Phillips was painted as an everyman who tried everything in his power to prevent the hijacking, the crew of the actual MV Maersk Alabama saw things differently. The crew claims [PDF] that Captain Phillips knowingly went into pirate-infested waters to save time and money, instead of steering clear of disaster, despite numerous warning signs that urged him to go farther away from the African coastline.
The lawsuit [PDF] against the shipping company alleges that the Navy and crewmembers were the true heroes against the hijackers and not Captain Phillips, as the movie would suggest. “I want moviegoers to know that the true heroes are the Navy marksmen and Navy personnel who bailed out the shipping company and Captain Phillips,” said Brian Beckcom, the attorney representing nine of the former seamen of the MV Maersk Alabama, who were described as “the brave crew members who fought back against the pirates.” The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages, as the plaintiffs claim physical and emotional injuries during the miserable melee.
2. Drive (2011)
The Lawsuit: Sarah Deming vs. FilmDistrict and Emagine Theaters Novi, Michigan
In October 2011, a Michigan woman named Sarah Deming filed a lawsuit [PDF] against the Emagine Novi movie theater and FilmDistrict Distribution for making a misleading trailer for Drive, a movie starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and Albert Brooks.
Deming claimed that the film distributor “promoted Drive as very similar to the Fast and Furious, or similar, series of movies.” Deming was upset that Drive was a methodical art film that “bore very little similarity to a chase or race action… having little driving in the motion picture.” Deming included the movie theater where she saw the film because it violated Michigan's Consumer Protection Act, claming that the film was anti-Semitic for depicting members of the Jewish faith in an unfavorable and stereotypical light.
Deming sought statutory damages under the Michigan's Consumer Protection Act, a warning of the film’s anti-Semitic leanings, and wanted the case certified as a class action lawsuit. The trial judge sided with the defendants, and on October 15, 2013, the appellate court rejected her appeal.
3. The Hangover Part II (2011)
The Lawsuit: S. Victor Whitmill vs. Warner Bros.
In April 2011, tattoo artist S. Victor Whitmill sued Warner Bros. for a copyright infringement [PDF] in the film The Hangover Part II. In the film, Stu (Ed Helms) wakes up after a night of debauchery in a Bangkok hotel with a replica of Mike Tyson’s tribal face tattoo. The plaintiff designed the tattoo specifically for Mike Tyson and therefore claimed it was a copyrighted work. Whitmill claimed that Warner Bros. had no right to put his work in the film or in any promotional materials attached to The Hangover Part II.
The lawsuit almost affected the release of the film, and there was the possibility that if the two parties couldn’t come to an agreement, the face tattoo would have to be digitally lifted from Helms’ face for the home video release. Ultimately, Warner Bros. settled Whitmill’s claim for an undisclosed amount, and The Hangover Part II went on to gross $581.4 million worldwide.
4. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
The Lawsuit: Justin Seay and Christopher Rotunda vs. Sacha Baron-Cohen and Twentieth Century Fox
In 2006, two University of South Carolina fraternity brothers sued the filmmakers and movie studio behind the comedy Borat, claiming defamation. The film depicted the pair making racist and sexist comments while heavily drinking on camera. While plaintiffs Christopher Rotunda and Justin Seay had signed a lengthy release form agreeing not to take legal action against the film’s creators, they still sought an injunction to remove their scenes from the DVD release of the film. The lawsuit was thrown out by a Los Angeles judge in early 2007.
5. Black Swan (2010)
The Lawsuit: Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, et al. vs. Fox Searchlight and Fox Entertainment Group
In 2011, two interns working on Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan filed a lawsuit against Fox. Eric Glatt, working in accounting, and Alexander Footman, working in production, failed to receive any pay or college credit in exchange for their work, which they claim violates both state and federal labor laws.
Glatt claims he worked five days a week for 40 to 50 hours per week for more than a year, while Footman worked a similar schedule for 95 days. Neither received any pay, benefits, class credits, or financial compensation. The pair seeks class damages for pay owed during production and also an injunction to prevent Fox Searchlight from using unpaid interns during any future film productions.
The Federal Court Judge agreed with Glatt and Footman, ruling that under the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law, they should be considered employees, rather than unpaid interns. Currently, Fox is looking to reverse the court’s decision in the Court of Appeals.
6. Natural Born Killers (1994)
The Lawsuit: Patsy Ann Byers, et al. vs. Oliver Stone, Time Warner, Inc., et al.
In 1995, Sarah Edmondson and her boyfriend Benjamin James Darras went on a violent crime spree through Mississippi and Louisiana after watching Oliver Stone’s controversial movie Natural Born Killers. While in Louisiana, Edmondson shot convenience store cashier Patsy Byers, rendering her a quadriplegic. Byers then filed a lawsuit against her assailants and the filmmakers behind Natural Born Killers in 1996. She claimed that the violence depicted in the film drove Edmondson and Darras to go on a similar crime spree. The court dismissed the case in 1997, just months before Byers died of cancer.
In 2001, Judge Robert Morrison dropped the lawsuit on the grounds that there was not enough evidence that Stone or Time Warner knowingly intended to encourage violence. The Louisiana Court of Appeals turned down the appeal [PDF] from the Byers family’s attorney and the lawsuit was officially closed.
7. Avatar (2009)
The Lawsuit: William Roger Dean vs. James Cameron, Twentieth Century Fox, et al.
In June 2013, album cover artist William Roger Dean filed a lawsuit [PDF] against James Cameron and Twentieth Century Fox under copyright infringement for the alien planet design in Avatar. Dean claims that Pandora’s look is extremely similar to the fantasy landscapes depicted in his artwork on the books Magnetic Storm, Views, and Dragon’s Dream. The lawsuit cites a number of examples from Cameron’s 3D film, including the alien world’s foliage, floating islands, stone arches, and creature design.
William Roger Dean worked on the album covers for best-selling rock bands including Yes and Asia. Dean is seeking upwards of $50 million in damages, an injunction against distribution, full accounting, and a court order that makes it clear that James Cameron ripped off his work. He also wants those rights enforced and posted on current and any future Avatar projects.
8. Pixar Animation
The Lawsuit: Luxo vs. Walt Disney Company
In 2009, Norwegian lamp manufacturers Luxo sued the animation studio Pixar and its parent company Walt Disney for copyright infringement. Although Luxo had turned a blind eye to Pixar’s use of their design since John Lasseter’s short film Luxo Jr. in 1986, the company filed a complaint when Pixar started to sell replicas of the Luxo Jr. lamp with a special Blu-ray release of the film UP without their permission. The lawsuit also cited the use of the Luxo brand name on a six-foot tall animatronic lamp at Hollywood Studios inside Florida's Walt Disney World.
A few months later, Disney and Luxo reached a settlement and the lawsuit was withdrawn. For the time being, Luxo has no problems with any “artistic renditions” of their iconic lamp. Luxo Jr. has been Pixar’s mascot since 1986.