UK: Lights, Camera, Intellectual Property Disputes

Last Updated: 10 March 2019
Article by Bethany Brown and Laura Robyn

The stars of Hollywood are no strangers to litigation with people seeming to sue each other on a regular basis, see for example the multiple stories about the Kardashians being sued or suing others. Cases of purported intellectual property theft are dealt with no differently, with the subject of many lawsuits being the unauthorised use of such property. IP law suits are particularly prevalent in the movie industry. Given that the industry is worth trillions of pounds, it's really no surprise that companies and corporations put in place robust protections to avoid and enforce against their intellectual property being infringed. In this blog we examine some cases regarding IP and the film industry where the action didn't stay on the big screen.

Captain Phillips

The media often report on lawsuits for defamation where someone is portrayed in an untrue, or less-than-desirable, way, but less common are lawsuits where it's claimed that the portrayal of a real person was too positive. This is what happened in the lawsuit 'The crew of the MV Maersk Alabama vs. Waterman Steamship Corporation and Maersk Line Limited' which concerned the 2013 film starring Tom Hanks. In the film, Captain Phillips, played by Hanks, is an upstanding man who works hard to protect his ship and crew from pirates. The crew of the real MV Maersk Alabama were not best pleased with this portrayal, claiming that the real Captain Phillips had purposefully sailed through the waters, knowing that there were pirates, in order to save time and money. This formed part of their lawsuit where they sued for damages for physical and emotional harm caused by the event.


Disney often seem to find themselves the subject of IP related lawsuits. From Frozen to Pirates of the Caribbean to the classic Pixar lamp, rightly or wrongly people are ready to claim that they deserve recognition or compensation for their 'stolen' ideas. But, it isn't always people taking legal action against Disney. Disney have shown that they have no problem starting formal proceedings of their own when they feel that their IP is being used improperly.

It is notoriously difficult for foreign companies to succeed with intellectual property disputes in China. A recent example is Apple's unfavourable judgement and subsequent injunctions in relation to smart phone patents. However, back in 2016 Disney managed to do it when they filed suit against a Chinese film titled The Autobots. The Chinese made film had some unmistakeable similarities to Disney's smash hit Cars, not least that the main character of the film was a red car who was identical to Lightning McQueen, star of the Disney film. The Chinese court found that The Autobots was an illegal copy of the Disney film.

The Hangover Part II

If you haven't seen this film then all you really need to know is this: guys get drunk and go on a crazy night out, guys wake up with no memory of the night before and spend the film trying to work out what happened. A simple idea but with plenty of entertainment value. In part II of the franchise, one of the actors wakes up from the alcohol fuelled night to find he's had a replica of Mike Tyson's tribal face tattoo tattooed on his face. It may all be good for a laugh but the tattoo artist who originally designed the tattoo sued Warner Bros for the use of, what he referred to as, copyright-protected work. Warner Bros settled the dispute for an undisclosed amount.

The Cabin in the Woods

Critically very well received, The Cabin in Woods is a horror comedy which took horror movie clichés and turned them on their heads to create a film which is actually amusing and scary (a firm favourite with horror film fans). It was lauded for doing something new and, in many ways, it broke new ground for the horror genre. Author Peter Gallagher, however, was not such a fan of the film. Peter claimed that the story of the film had been stolen from his novel and in 2015 he sued the films writers for $10m. After considering the evidence the judge dismissed the claim saying "The concept of young people venturing off to such locations and being murdered by some evil force is common in horror films." (Probably because this describes a very high proportion of horror films in existence).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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