Was Avatar’s plot familiar? Man goes to moon, remains conflicted between Earth and blue Na’vis. Man gets … well, if you are Gerald Morawski, you thought the story uncomfortably similar to a story you talked about with director James Cameron. And, as a result, Morawski sued the famed filmmaker for breach of contract, fraud and negligent misrepresentation. A U.S. district judge, however, has rejected the claim, saying Avatar simply was a “retelling of the familiar story of European colonization and the love story between Pocahontas and John Smith.”
Morawski and Cameron met in 1991. Morawski, a U.S. Army vet turned visual-effects consultant, discussed with Cameron the purchase of some art. During the sale, Morawski asserts that he pitched his idea for a film, Guardians of Eden. According to the complaint (thanks to Entertainment Law Digest for the court documents), Morawski “entered into agreements with Cameron and Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment Inc., which provided that Morawski would retain the exclusive rights to his ideas, and that if [Cameron] wished to use them, [he] would have to negotiate for the right to do so.” No deal was struck between the parties to acquire the rights to the ideas. Fast forward 18 years later, the billion-dollar blockbuster Avatar was released and Morawski sues Cameron for the “unauthorized use of the original ideas contained in Guardians of Eden.”
Morawski distills his idea elements and compares them to Avatar’s plot, including “An epic struggle takes place between evil mining interests, who would destroy the planet to satisfy their own greed, and an indigenous tribe, that lives at one with, and protects, its rain forest environment.” Cameron counters in a declaration that Avatar “was based on and flowed out of my fascination with and love of science, nature, the environment, science fiction, history, and philosophy.” He details more than 100 inspirations from his background that fostered his film, including his works predating his 1991 meeting with Morawski, including such films as: Aliens, Rambo II, The Abyss, Terminator and Terminator 2. U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow dismissed Morawski’s case.
It’s worth noting Morawski did not claim copyright infringement. The 1976 Copyright Act is clear that ideas cannot be copyrightef. Morawski never wrote a screenplay for Guardians and there was no tangible medium of expression. Instead, he sought relief on the claim of his striking a contract with Lighthouse Entertainment Inc., an argument that fails because, even if such an agreement had existed, there was no breach because Cameron based the movie “on his own past experiences and projects”, not on Morawski’s pitch.