The exclusive right to copy and distribute a creative work, or a copyright, provides protection to its owner and that person’s original expression of an idea or thought. The film released on May 27, 2022, “Top Gun: Maverick”, has recently found itself involved in a copyright infringement lawsuit. The classic film “Top Gun,” featuring Tom Cruise in the starring role, is based on a magazine article written in 1983. The heirs of the author of the magazine article filed a lawsuit on June 6, 2022, in federal court in Los Angeles, California alleging copyright infringement.[i] The heirs claim that Paramount Global’s rights to the original magazine story expired in 2022.[ii]
What is a copyright?
A copyright is a form of intellectual property that secures “original works of authorship” once the creator has created a “tangible form of expression.”[iii] A copyright is able to protect a wide variety of works, including photographs, musical compositions, books, plays, architectural renderings, and movies.[iv] Once a creator composes the original work and creates a tangible item from it, that person become the creator and copyright owner. The United States law regarding copyrights awards the creator and copyright owner with exclusive rights to make copies of the work, display the work, and, important to the case at hand, assemble derivative works based upon the original work. The original owner of the copyright also carries the right to allow or authorize other individuals or companies to exercise the exclusive rights they hold. Lastly, the original owner and its heirs have the right to terminate granted rights after thirty-five years.
How is a copyright protected?
A copyright provides varying lengths of protection on original works, dependent on when an original work was authored. Currently, “works created on or after January 1, 1978, have a copyright term of the life of the author plus seventy years after the author’s death.”[v] If the work has two creators, or is a joint work, the length of protection of the copyright is seventy years following the death of the last surviving creator. Lastly, for original works made anonymously, or under a fake name, the length of protection is ninety-five years from the date of publication or one-hundred and twenty years from creation. The length that is shorter of the two is controlling.
Who can use copyrights?
Every single day individuals use copyrighted material. When people listen to their favorite song, read an award-winning poem, or watch an Oscar winning film, they use copyrights. Therefore, if you are not the original owner of the work, you may still be able to use it. Additionally, one can purchase the licensing, or rights to use, for use of the work. Original works considered in the public domain, such as discoveries, well-known established facts, or works whose term of protection has ceased, are free to be used and do not require any additional licensing or purchasing. Any and all original works created before 1962 are considered part of the public domain.
Can you register a copyright?
Although a copyright comes into existence immediately once an original work becomes tangible or fixed, an owner can register the copyright with the United States Copyright Office. In order to register a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, an individual must submit an online application and a copy of the work to be registered that will not be returned. Registering a work as a copyright is required if one is to enforce the exclusive rights associated with the work by filing a lawsuit or other litigation. The registration of a copyright also assists owners of the original works with seeking attorney’s fees and monetary damages if active litigation should occur. Finally, registering a copyright with the U.S. Office of Copyright puts the public on notice of the copyrighted work and its protection.
What happened to Maverick?
The original film entitled “Top Gun” was based off a story in a magazine written by Ehud Yonay entitled “Top Guns.” According to the lawsuit, Paramount Global obtained the exclusive motion picture, or movie rights to the story immediately following its publication.[vi] The original author’s widow and son filed the lawsuit against Paramount Global for copyright infringement since Paramount’s rights to the magazine story ended in 2020. The defendants in this case assert that the claims made by Mr. Yonay’s widow and son are meritless and false. The lawsuit further states that the Yonay family notified Paramount, and the U.S. Copyright Office, that they were terminating the studio’s rights beginning on January 24, 2020. Paramount Global appears to have ignored that notice and continued production on “Top Gun: Maverick.” Interestingly, Paramount Global did have an exclusive right between the time of the family’s notice in 2018 to the 2020 termination to apply for a new licensure. This new license would reflect how the market value of the original story in the magazine had increased.
Why is this lawsuit significant?
This specific lawsuit is not the first time the creators of a famous movie have been sued for copyright infringement. Litigation regarding the occurrence of copyright infringement does occur concerning various types of works and can sometimes become a lucrative situation for the original copyright holder. If you, or any family members or friends, are looking for assistance with a copyright infringement case, or other types of intellectual property cases, and reside in the State of Tennessee, call Cole Law at 615-490-6020 to schedule a consultation with one of our Brentwood, Tennessee intellectual property attorneys.
[i] ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Studio Paramount Is Sue Over Copyright, Wall Street Journal (June 6, 2022), available at https://www.wsj.com/articles/top-gun-maverick-studio-paramount-is-sued-over-copyright-11654557910.
[vi] Supra note i.