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Appellate Court Considers ‘Avatar’ Idea Theft Case

A three-judge appellate panel heard artist Gerald Morawski’s claim that he pitched a project to director James Cameron that eventually became the movie “Avatar,” despite a lower court ruling that Cameron independently created elements before meeting Morawski.

Morawski, represented by Peter W. Ross, contends that there were enough disputes over the facts to warrant the case going to trial. In 2013, U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow granted summary judgment in favor of Cameron and his Lightstorm Entertainment, ruling that while Morawski’s project pitch, called “Guardians of Eden,” bore similarities to “Avatar,” the director drew upon produced and unproduced projects from the 1970s and 1980s before their 1991 meeting.

In the litigation, Cameron submitted a 45-page sworn declaration detailing how he came up with “Avatar.” Morawski’s legal team argued that the director’s declaration that the story of “Avatar” is based on his prior works was not enough to support a ruling for summary judgment.

“If that were the case, a defendant could always obtain summary judgment by submitting a declaration stating that he or she did not copy the plaintiff’s work,” Morawski’s attorneys said in a filing.

But Robert Rotstein, attorney for Lightstorm, argued that there was “clear, positive evidence” that Cameron independently created the work. He contended that the contract between Lightstorm and Morawski was only that negotiations take place over Morawski’s original ideas, “and the ideas from ‘Guardians of Eden’ allegedly used in ‘Avatar’ were unoriginal.”

Morawski sued for breach of express and implied contract and promissory fraud in 2012.

During the hearing, Judge Andrew Hurwitz at one point told Rotstein that “if I were a finder of fact looking at the issues I would find for your side.” But he indicated that he was struggling with prevailing case law and whether there was still enough dispute over the facts to warrant bringing the litigation before a jury.

Also brought up during the hearing was a reference to “Guardians of Eden” in Cameron’s notes, with Morawski’s legal team says shows a link because it appears near a reference to “Avatar.” Rotstein said that the reference was made in a project list and that the projects were “separated by dotted lines.”

In her ruling, Morrow concluded that Cameron’s ideas before 1991 included such things as a disabled protagonist “transporting his consciousness to another form, evil mercenaries attempting to exploit resources in a jungle-like setting, a jungle containing bioluminescent plants and unusual animals, a protagonist fighting alongside natives against a superior fighting force and a sentient planet.”

She also rejected Morawski’s contention that Cameron did not develop the ultimate story until after he heard Morawski’s pitch. She wrote that “it is clear that Cameron used more than just isolated characters and concepts from his earlier works. He incorporated entire themes and story arcs from prior works in his ‘Avatar’ scriptment.”

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