Millions of people in Georgia and around the country flocked to cinemas in 2003 to see the Disney release “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.” The film was a huge box-office success and spawned four sequels to date. It is also at the center of a contentious intellectual property dispute. In a lawsuit filed in a Los Angeles district court, two screenwriters claim that the first “Pirates” film drew heavily from a script outline that they submitted to Disney in 2000. The outline was rejected.
The district court dismissed the copyright infringement lawsuit after applying what is known as the extrinsic test. This test is used by judges to determine whether allegedly infringing material is objectively similar to the plaintiff’s work. However, a panel of appeals judges unanimously voted to reinstate the lawsuit on July 22 after applying the same test and reaching a different conclusion. These conflicting rulings reveal the nebulous nature of much intellectual property law.
While the film released by Disney differs greatly from the 2000 outline, the appeals judges found many common themes. The two works have similar prologues, similar character arcs and many dramatic elements in common. The district court judge who dismissed the lawsuit said that these similarities were common tropes that have been used in pirate movies for decades. The appeals judges did not disagree outright, but they ruled that being based on such a trope does not necessarily make elements of a screenplay unprotectable.
Lawsuits like this one attract a lot of media attention and can sometimes do great harm to business reputations that have taken decades to build. They could also impact the profitability of future commercial endeavors. This is why attorneys with intellectual property law experience may seek to settle copyright infringement litigation discretely if possible.