James Cameron’s 2009 box-office hit Avatar is the subject of a California idea submission lawsuit that was decided in Cameron’s favor both at the trial and appellate level, in Eric Ryder v. Lightstorm Entertainment, Inc., et al., Case No. B254922.  Plaintiff Eric Ryder claimed that Cameron and Lightstorm Entertainment, Inc. fraudulently expressed an interest in developing Ryder’s sci-fi story “KRZ” and that they used parts of that story in Avatar.  The trial court granted Cameron and Lightstorm’s motion for summary judgment.  In an opinion filed on March 25, 2016 and certified for publication on April 22, 2016 (available online here), the appellate court affirmed, determining that Ryder’s contract and fiduciary duty claims failed because there was no substantial similarity between KRZ and Avatar and, as such, plaintiff could not show that the defendants used his ideas.  Ryder’s fraud claims likewise failed, among other reasons, for failure to show use of his ideas, and therefore he could not establish any harm.

The Court’s opinion notes that, although Avatar was released in 2009, Cameron originally conceived of the story in 1995 in his 102-page “scriptment,” which he described as a “highly detailed script-length treatment that, like a treatment, was in narrative rather than dialogue form, and laid out the story, characters, setting and many of the visual images for Avatar in great detail.”  (Opinion, page 4.)  He circulated the scriptment in 1996 but, by 1997, decided not to move forward with the film due to technology limitations.  In 2005, he revisited the project, writing the first draft between December 2005 and May 2006, and commencing principal photography the following year.

Meanwhile, according to the Court’s opinion, Ryder wrote KRZ between 1996 and 1998.  He and his wife created a business proposal in 1998, which included a “Notice to Recipients,” by which the recipients purportedly agreed to limit their use of the proposal.  Through Ryder’s contacts, he allegedly got the proposal before Lightstorm in 2000.  According to Ryder, he provided Jay Sanders, a Lightstorm development executive, a copy of the story and proposal.  Allegedly, Sanders liked the story but felt it needed refinement, and worked with Ryder to get the story in a condition to be shown to his bosses, Rae Sanchini and Jon Landau.  If they liked it, it would be presented to Cameron for final approval.  According to Ryder, throughout this time, nobody at Lightstorm disclosed the existence of the Avatar scriptment to him.  As noted by the Court, although KRZ was eventually turned into a treatment, Cameron never saw it, and Lightstorm ultimately passed on the project.  The Court also noted that, although KRZ underwent further development and was pitched to Lightstorm again years later (under a new title), Lightstorm passed on the offer and, eventually, Ryder and his group stopped pitching the project entirely.

The Court started its discussion of Ryder’s contract and fiduciary duty claims by noting that those claims hinged on whether the defendants had used Ryder’s ideas for Avatar.  “In the absence of direct evidence, ‘use’ of an idea can be inferred from evidence showing the defendant had access to the plaintiff’s idea and the parties’ ideas are [actionably] similar.”  (Opinion, page 9.)  The court expressly stated that it did not need to address the issue of access, determining that “no rational jury could conclude the actionable elements in KRZ and Avatar were similar, which defeats an inference of use as a matter of law.”  (Id.)  In other words, the works – which needed to be substantially similar to be actionable – were so dissimilar that the question of access was moot.  In comparing the works, the Court disregarded any allegedly similar elements that were already present in Cameron’s scriptment, created prior to KRZ.  Ryder claimed that those elements should have been considered, arguing that (1) the defendants were estopped from relying on the scriptment since they “concealed” its existence from Ryder; and (2) Lightstorm expressly agreed not to use preexisting elements from the Avatarscriptment.  The Court rejected both arguments.

Therefore, the Court only looked at the 12 allegedly similar elements that Ryder claimed were added to Avatar and which were not in Cameron’s scriptment.  These included, among others,

  • That the protagonist is enlisted as a spy by the corporation;
  • The corporation depends on the spy to facilitate the continued mining;
  • The mining is managed using a large table-based light map;
  • Explosives are depicted as being used in the mining process; and
  • Totems made of body parts are depicted as having significant meaning.

The Court rejected each of the 12 supposedly similar elements, determining that the two works did not share such elements, that any shared elements were depicted very differently (e.g. the totems), and/or that any overlap was obvious and insubstantial (e.g., the use of explosives in the mining process).  Thus, according to the Court, there was not substantial similarity between the works as a matter of law, and the Court upheld summary judgment as to Ryder’s contract and fiduciary duty claims in defendants’ favor.

Ryder separately argued that Lightstorm committed fraud by (i) telling him KRZ was “unique” and an attractive film opportunity; (ii) not disclosing the Avatar scriptment to Ryder, in order to allegedly share KRZ with Cameron to further develop Avatar; and (iii) inducing Ryder to take KRZ off the market.  The Court soundly rejected these claims, determining that Ryder provided no evidence that defendants made any intentional misrepresentations or false promises, and that Ryder failed to offer any evidence of resulting harm.  Because the Court found that the plaintiff failed to establish actionable similarity and, therefore, use of his ideas, he could not establish any resulting harm (which is an element of a fraud claim).  In particular, the Court explained “[e]ven if defendants concealed their use of the KRZ development process to obtain ideas for Avatar, defendants never actually used any of those ideas . . . .”  (Opinion, page 18 (emphasis in original).)  Accordingly, the Court upheld summary judgment on Ryder’s fraud claims in defendants’ favor.

This case is a good example of an idea submission suit in which the two works were so dissimilar that the question of access was rendered moot.  It also presents another good example of a court filtering out pre-existing elements from the substantial similarity analysis.  “[W]here defendant owns a prior work containing the same elements, he has no reason, beyond the illicit thrill of copyright infringement, to copy wrongfully from another what he could legally copy from himself.”  (Opinion, page 12.)