Who really owns the CG characters in blockbuster films like ‘Avengers’ and ‘Night at the Museum’? On Monday, a judge was told it’s not the studios.
Are some of Hollywood’s biggest movies from the past decade — Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Deadpool and Night at the Museum, among others — all copyright infringements because they were allegedly created with stolen technology? The question seems outlandish, and yet, that’s exactly what a California federal judge was told on Monday in a case that can’t be shrugged off as a crank even if it is now treading on some fantastic territory including a scholar’s search for hidden codes in the Hebrew Bible.
Rearden LLC is the plaintiff. The firm was founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Perlman, who claims to own software called MOVA, which captures facial expressions to create photorealistic computer graphic effects. Rearden also alleges its technology was stolen by a former colleague before eventually landing in the hands of a Chinese firm. After the FBI investigated economic espionage, Rearden sued this Chinese company and won an injunction. Now, Rearden is suing the customers of the stolen technology — Disney, Fox and Paramount — who find their blockbusters the subject of bold intellectual property claims.
In response to the lawsuit, the studios have contended that that the copyright, trademark and patent claims fail as a matter of law. This story will focus on the mind-blowing copyright arguments.
At this stage of the dispute, the studios can’t dispute the truth of the allegations — not only did they use stolen technology, they did so knowingly. But Disney, Fox and Paramount ask, so what? Whatever shows up onscreen is primarily the product of human input, namely film direction and an actor’s performance. The technology company simply can’t own the output.
“Indeed, if Rearden’s authorship-ownership theory were law, then Adobe or Microsoft would be deemed to be the author-owner of whatever expressive works the users of Photoshop or Word generate by using those programs,” wrote Kelly Klaus, attorney for the defendants, who also nodded to an 1884 Supreme Court opinion, Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony.