If copyright laws seek to prevent unauthorized lifting of an artist’s intellectual property, what should cineastes make of a recent French court ruling in a copyright dispute involving filmmaker Luc Besson? The court found he infringed on the copyright of a 1980s American classic, Escape From New York, when Besson remade it in 2012 as sci-fi thriller Lockout. The ABA Journal noted that as soon as the new film was screened critics noticed similarities to its predecessor.
John Carpenter, Escape’s director and an acknowledged horror flick master, sued the makers of the 2012 film, arguing the similarities between the two works were overwhelming.
The court agreed, saying, “Both presented an athletic, rebellious and cynical hero, sentenced to a period of isolated incarceration — despite his heroic past — who is given the offer of setting out to free the President of the United States or his daughter held hostage in exchange for his freedom.” The judge also noted that the hero in both films “manages, undetected, to get inside the place where the hostage is being held, after a flight in a glider/space shuttle, and finds there a former associate who dies; he pulls off the mission in extremis, and at the end of the film keeps the secret documents recovered in the course of the mission.”
But Regis Lefebvre, a Besson spokesman, told AFP that similarities commonly occur in films. He decried the verdict, calling it “unacceptable, even if the court only granted three percent of the damages demanded.”
Here’s the rub: While the plaintiffs sought roughly $3.5 million in damages, the court awarded them just $90,000. Meantime, Lockout, according to online estimates, cost $20 million to make and had a worldwide box office haul of $33 million, with another $8.5 million in total domestic Blue-Ray, DVD, and video sales. So does that infringement judgement look more like deterrent or chump change?