An author’s heirs has sued Paramount Pictures Corporation in federal court over the underlying rights to the hit movie Top Gun: Maverick, which plaintiffs contend is a sequel to the original movie. Ehud Yonay wrote the original 1983 article in California magazine titled “Top Guns,” from which the 1986 motion picture “Top Gun” (the “1986 Film”) was based. According to the plaintiffs, the recently released 2022 motion picture “Top Gun: Maverick” (the “Sequel”) is also derived from the article. Yonay’s heirs availed themselves of their right to recover the copyright to the story under the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 203(a)), by sending Paramount a statutory notice of termination and filing it with the Copyright Office as of January 24, 2020.
Under U.S. copyright law, authors (or their survivors), can “terminate” copyright assignments they have previously made in certain circumstances and regain rights to their work. Consequently, even if an author, musician, or filmmaker signed an agreement transferring all rights in their work in perpetuity, the Copyright Act provides that the author can end that grant and demand that the rights revert. Essentially, the author is getting a second chance to make money from his work which may have initially been sold at a time when it did not fetch much money.
However, works previously created before termination can continue to be distributed. The owner of a film produced based on a novel, for example, can continue to exploit the movie because that grant was prepared under authority of rights before termination. However, no new sequels or remakes could be made after termination.
The 1986 Film was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and its screenplay written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr., and was derived from the story according to the plaintiffs. They mention in the lawsuit that the 1986 Film specifically credits Ehud Yonay for his story.
Under copyright law (17 U.S.C. § 203) a derivative work prepared under authority of the grant before its termination may continue to be used under the terms of the grant after its termination, but this privilege does not extend to the preparation after the termination of other derivative works based upon the copyrighted work covered by the terminated grant. The plaintiffs contend the movie wasn’t completed until May 8, 2021, more than a year after Paramount’s rights to the story expired. The release of the film was delayed because of theater closures forced by Covid-19.
Paramount can be expected to argue that the sequel movie is not derivative of the article and many of the facts are in the public domain. It may also argue that a mere story idea is not copyrightable, and the movie was produced before termination was effective, even if it was released later.
Should the plaintiffs prevail, they could stop distribution of the hit film causing Paramount to lose enormous amount of revenue. Moreover, they can seek damages for copyright infringement. In cases like this, the parties often reach a settlement.