Top Gun: Maverick Meets Its Match

As one of my law school professors used to say, “Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ.” A writ is a form of legal petition. Most people have heard of a writ of certiorari or habeas corpus. But in this case, we have the box office hit, credited with the revival of movies theater audiences nationwide, maybe worldwide: Top Gun: Maverick roared into the top spot for box office receipts this summer, with the biggest ever opening on a Memorial Day weekend at over $160mm dollars passing the record set by Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. The global haul after opening weekend was more than $300mm dollars. Filmed with IMAX cameras, revenue came from nearly 40% IMAX theaters. Apparently, shortly before its premiere, Paramount Pictures received a cease and desist letter from the descendants of the author to a story, which the studio licensed for the original film, Top Gun (1986). The letter alleged that the studio had neglected to renew its license to the story, that the heirs to the story had properly notified the studio of their intent to terminate the initial grant of rights, and that the studio therefore did not have the rights to exploit the story in the sequel. 

Opponents to infringement argue that elements, if any, presented in the sequel are only ideas, not expressions, and therefore no copyright infringement occurs because no story expressions are present in the script or production of the sequel. Copyright protection is not available to ideas, but only expressions of ideas; the line that is drawn between when an idea becomes expression, varies by trade and is highly contested. Furthermore, parties against infringement argue that the sequel only contains nominal references to the earlier film and that the sequel can stand entirely on its own, albeit the same character is present in both. Sources close to the case have said that they believe the parties will settle to avoid monetary risks common with trials. Then again, time will tell if the studio fights the allegations on principle. But then, with home availability likely months away with a film doing so well at the box office (experts predict the sequel will earn roughly upwards of $600mm dollars), making Top Gun: Maverick an attractive target for anyone with a dog in the fight.

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