ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

8 Movies and the Lawsuits That Plagued Them

ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Lawsuits against movies and filmmakers often stem from copyright infringement, plagiarism, or inaccurate details surrounding true events. In some cases, a lawsuit is filed as a quick way to get a piece of a widely popular movie’s box office gross. Here are eight movies that led to legal action.

1. Captain Phillips (2013)
The Lawsuit: The crew of the MV Maersk Alabama vs. Waterman Steamship Corporation and Maersk Line, Limited

The latest film from British director Paul Greengrass tells the heroic story of Captain Richard Phillips, the captain of the MV Maersk Alabama, and his ordeal when Somali pirates hijacked his cargo ship in 2009.

While the film version of Phillips was painted as an everyman who tried everything in his power to prevent the hijacking, the crew of the actual MV Maersk Alabama saw things differently. The crew claims [PDF] that Captain Phillips knowingly went into pirate-infested waters to save time and money, instead of steering clear of disaster, despite numerous warning signs that urged him to go farther away from the African coastline.

The lawsuit [PDF] against the shipping company alleges that the Navy and crewmembers were the true heroes against the hijackers and not Captain Phillips, as the movie would suggest. “I want moviegoers to know that the true heroes are the Navy marksmen and Navy personnel who bailed out the shipping company and Captain Phillips,” said Brian Beckcom, the attorney representing nine of the former seamen of the MV Maersk Alabama, who were described as “the brave crew members who fought back against the pirates.” The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages, as the plaintiffs claim physical and emotional injuries during the miserable melee.

2. Drive (2011)
The Lawsuit: Sarah Deming vs. FilmDistrict and Emagine Theaters Novi, Michigan

In October 2011, a Michigan woman named Sarah Deming filed a lawsuit [PDF] against the Emagine Novi movie theater and FilmDistrict Distribution for making a misleading trailer for Drive, a movie starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and Albert Brooks.

Deming claimed that the film distributor “promoted Drive as very similar to the Fast and Furious, or similar, series of movies.” Deming was upset that Drive was a methodical art film that “bore very little similarity to a chase or race action… having little driving in the motion picture.” Deming included the movie theater where she saw the film because it violated Michigan's Consumer Protection Act, claming that the film was anti-Semitic for depicting members of the Jewish faith in an unfavorable and stereotypical light.

Deming sought statutory damages under the Michigan's Consumer Protection Act, a warning of the film’s anti-Semitic leanings, and wanted the case certified as a class action lawsuit. The trial judge sided with the defendants, and on October 15, 2013, the appellate court rejected her appeal.

3. The Hangover Part II (2011)
The Lawsuit: S. Victor Whitmill vs. Warner Bros.

In April 2011, tattoo artist S. Victor Whitmill sued Warner Bros. for a copyright infringement [PDF] in the film The Hangover Part II. In the film, Stu (Ed Helms) wakes up after a night of debauchery in a Bangkok hotel with a replica of Mike Tyson’s tribal face tattoo. The plaintiff designed the tattoo specifically for Mike Tyson and therefore claimed it was a copyrighted work. Whitmill claimed that Warner Bros. had no right to put his work in the film or in any promotional materials attached to The Hangover Part II.

The lawsuit almost affected the release of the film, and there was the possibility that if the two parties couldn’t come to an agreement, the face tattoo would have to be digitally lifted from Helms’ face for the home video release. Ultimately, Warner Bros. settled Whitmill’s claim for an undisclosed amount, and The Hangover Part II went on to gross $581.4 million worldwide.

4. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
The Lawsuit: Justin Seay and Christopher Rotunda vs. Sacha Baron-Cohen and Twentieth Century Fox

In 2006, two University of South Carolina fraternity brothers sued the filmmakers and movie studio behind the comedy Borat, claiming defamation. The film depicted the pair making racist and sexist comments while heavily drinking on camera. While plaintiffs Christopher Rotunda and Justin Seay had signed a lengthy release form agreeing not to take legal action against the film’s creators, they still sought an injunction to remove their scenes from the DVD release of the film. The lawsuit was thrown out by a Los Angeles judge in early 2007.

5. Black Swan (2010)
The Lawsuit: Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, et al. vs. Fox Searchlight and Fox Entertainment Group

In 2011, two interns working on Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan filed a lawsuit against Fox. Eric Glatt, working in accounting, and Alexander Footman, working in production, failed to receive any pay or college credit in exchange for their work, which they claim violates both state and federal labor laws.

Glatt claims he worked five days a week for 40 to 50 hours per week for more than a year, while Footman worked a similar schedule for 95 days. Neither received any pay, benefits, class credits, or financial compensation. The pair seeks class damages for pay owed during production and also an injunction to prevent Fox Searchlight from using unpaid interns during any future film productions.

The Federal Court Judge agreed with Glatt and Footman, ruling that under the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law, they should be considered employees, rather than unpaid interns. Currently, Fox is looking to reverse the court’s decision in the Court of Appeals.

6. Natural Born Killers (1994)
The Lawsuit: Patsy Ann Byers, et al. vs. Oliver Stone, Time Warner, Inc., et al.

In 1995, Sarah Edmondson and her boyfriend Benjamin James Darras went on a violent crime spree through Mississippi and Louisiana after watching Oliver Stone’s controversial movie Natural Born Killers. While in Louisiana, Edmondson shot convenience store cashier Patsy Byers, rendering her a quadriplegic. Byers then filed a lawsuit against her assailants and the filmmakers behind Natural Born Killers in 1996. She claimed that the violence depicted in the film drove Edmondson and Darras to go on a similar crime spree. The court dismissed the case in 1997, just months before Byers died of cancer.

In 2001, Judge Robert Morrison dropped the lawsuit on the grounds that there was not enough evidence that Stone or Time Warner knowingly intended to encourage violence. The Louisiana Court of Appeals turned down the appeal [PDF] from the Byers family’s attorney and the lawsuit was officially closed.

7. Avatar (2009)
The Lawsuit: William Roger Dean vs. James Cameron, Twentieth Century Fox, et al.

In June 2013, album cover artist William Roger Dean filed a lawsuit [PDF] against James Cameron and Twentieth Century Fox under copyright infringement for the alien planet design in Avatar. Dean claims that Pandora’s look is extremely similar to the fantasy landscapes depicted in his artwork on the books Magnetic Storm, Views, and Dragon’s Dream. The lawsuit cites a number of examples from Cameron’s 3D film, including the alien world’s foliage, floating islands, stone arches, and creature design.

William Roger Dean worked on the album covers for best-selling rock bands including Yes and Asia. Dean is seeking upwards of $50 million in damages, an injunction against distribution, full accounting, and a court order that makes it clear that James Cameron ripped off his work. He also wants those rights enforced and posted on current and any future Avatar projects.

8. Pixar Animation
The Lawsuit: Luxo vs. Walt Disney Company

In 2009, Norwegian lamp manufacturers Luxo sued the animation studio Pixar and its parent company Walt Disney for copyright infringement. Although Luxo had turned a blind eye to Pixar’s use of their design since John Lasseter’s short film Luxo Jr. in 1986, the company filed a complaint when Pixar started to sell replicas of the Luxo Jr. lamp with a special Blu-ray release of the film UP without their permission. The lawsuit also cited the use of the Luxo brand name on a six-foot tall animatronic lamp at Hollywood Studios inside Florida's Walt Disney World.

A few months later, Disney and Luxo reached a settlement and the lawsuit was withdrawn. For the time being, Luxo has no problems with any “artistic renditions” of their iconic lamp. Luxo Jr. has been Pixar’s mascot since 1986.

Columbia Pictures
15 Things You May Not Know About Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

We are not alone. Here are a few facts about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, on its 40th anniversary.


Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg partly based his idea on the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book who eventually admitted that 11 percent of the study’s findings about unidentified flying objects could not be explained using science.

The title (which is never specifically explained in the movie) is actually derived from Hynek’s own alien close encounter classification system: A close encounter of the first kind is sighting of a UFO; the second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien; and the third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.


Hynek, who also served as a technical advisor on the movie, makes an uncredited cameo in the final scene of the movie. You can spot him pretty easily—he’s the goateed man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens.


Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Columbia Pictures

The director first offered the part of Roy Neary to actor Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he said he couldn’t cry on cue, something he saw as essential to the character. Spielberg then went to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan who all turned him down as well before asking his friend Richard Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Spielberg on Jaws, to take the part.


Spielberg approached French actors like Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Claude Lacombe—who was based on famous UFO researcher Jacques Vallée—before settling on director and sometimes-actor François Truffaut. The initially skeptical Truffaut, who was nervous about appearing in a big budget Hollywood movie, accepted the role because he wanted to compile research for a book about acting (he never did write the book).


Many actresses—including a then-unknown Yale Drama School grad named Meryl Streep—auditioned for the part of Roy’s wife Ronnie, but he ultimately cast actress Teri Garr because he saw her in a coffee commercial and loved the way she was able to convey a wide range of emotions in a 30-second clip.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg wanted to shoot in real suburban locations rather than studio backlots, but the production had trouble finding locations. The biggest question: Where could Spielberg shoot the climactic canyon sequence with the mothership?

The production looked for huge indoor enclosures that would allow for the massive scale of the scene, though they only found ones with center support dividers that spoiled the openness Spielberg wanted for the UFO runway. The only location producers found without center dividers was a 300 foot by 300 foot disused hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama.


The Nearys' house, which is located at 1613 Carlisle Drive East in Mobile, was actually purchased by the production for $35,000 so they could do whatever they wanted with the interiors. It was later sold for $50,000 after production wrapped, netting a $15,000 surplus that went back into the film’s budget.


Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.


Columbia Pictures

Cary Guffey, who plays little Barry Guiler, had never acted before, so Spielberg set up ways to coax a performance out of the 3-year-old. To get a shot of Guffey reacting to the aliens first approaching the Guiler house, Spielberg slowly unwrapped a present for the young actor just off camera, making him smile. Guffey even exclaims “Toys! Toys!” in the final take.

To get the boy to react to the aliens offscreen, Spielberg had Guffey walk up to his mark where—unbeknownst to the little actor—two crewmembers were dressed as a gorilla and a clown standing behind cardboard blinds. When Guffey entered the kitchen, Spielberg dropped the first blind revealing the clown to scare him, and then dropped the other blind to reveal the gorilla, which scared him even more. The gorilla then took off his mask, revealing the film’s makeup man, Bob Westmoreland, who Guffey recognized, causing him to laugh and smile in the final take.


Spielberg originally toyed with the idea of using computer generated images to create the aliens and their ships, even going so far as to have animator Colin Cantwell create a CGI test of three UFOs floating over a stadium. The single-shot test, which took three weeks to complete and was one of the first computer generated images ever created for a film, proved to be unfeasible for the whole movie—so the idea was dropped.


Spielberg wanted the aliens to be non-human beings that glided instead of walked, and he had a weird idea to pull it off: An orangutan dressed in a specially-made suit. For a screen test, the production team outfitted an orangutan in grey spandex and strapped it into roller skates. The orangutan immediately took off the skates and crawled to its owner, so a full test couldn’t be completed, and the team scrapped the idea. The majority of the small aliens in the final movie were played by local elementary school girls from Mobile in specially made grey suits and masks who were heavily backlit to create the final alien silhouette effect.


Columbia Pictures

To create the alien who bids farewell using the musical hand signals at the end of the film, Spielberg enlisted the help of Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who designed a fully articulated steel, aluminum, and fiberglass animatronic puppet that Spielberg nicknamed “Puck.” Puck’s expressions were based on photos of Guffey. The puppet was operated by a crew of seven puppeteers, with Spielberg himself controlling the final articulation before the alien leaves to go to the mothership.

Puck would help inspire E.T. after Spielberg asked himself, “What if this little guy didn’t get back on the mothership?” Rambaldi would also go on to design the character of E.T.


Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas both had new movies coming out in 1977; Lucas’s was a little movie called Star Wars. Lucas thought his ramshackle space movie wouldn’t make back its budget, and he knew his friend’s new movie would break box office records just like Jaws had done, so he offered Spielberg a friendly wager. Both agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of the profits of their respective films. Lucas grossly underestimated his movie, which went on to become the second highest grossing movie of all time if adjusted for inflation (in comparison, Close Encounters is #71). The difference ended up being $40 million.


Spielberg wanted to release Close Encounters in the summer of 1978, which would have given him ample time to edit the film and finish its special effects—but Columbia Pictures, which was going through major financial troubles, insisted he have it ready for a November 1977 release, leaving the director with a final cut on a movie he didn’t feel was completely ready. 

Three years later, the company allowed Spielberg to “finish” the movie under one condition: That he show the inside of the mothership, which would give the studio’s marketing department an angle to sell this new version. The director capitulated, adding new scenes and cutting others to create a “Special Edition.” The director was unhappy with the scene, though, and later cut it for the Collector's Edition home video release.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:Blu-ray special features; Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic FilmClose Encounters of the Third Kind Diary.

Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library
10 Treasures From the New York Academy of Medicine Library
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Tucked away on a side street near Central Park, the New York Academy of Medicine Library is one of the most significant historical medical libraries in the world. Open to the public by appointment since the 19th century, its collection includes 550,000 volumes on subjects ranging from ancient brain surgery to women's medical colleges to George Washington's dentures. A few weeks ago, Mental Floss visited to check out some of their most fascinating items connected to the study of anatomy. Whether it was urine wheels or early anatomy pop-up books, we weren't disappointed.


The Fasciculus Medicinae is a compilation of Greek and Arabic texts first printed in Venice in 1491. While it covers a variety of topics including anatomy and gynecology, the book begins with the discipline considered most important for diagnosing all medical issues at the time: uroscopy (the study of urine). The NYAM Library's curator, Anne Garner, showed us the book's urine wheel, which once had the various flasks of urine colored in to help aid physicians in their diagnosis. Each position of the wheel corresponded to one of the four humors, whether it was phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, or melancholic. The image on the left, Garner explains, "shows the exciting moment where a servant boy brings his flasks to be analyzed by a professor." Other notable images in the book include one historians like to call "Zodiac Man," showing how the parts of the body were governed by the planets, and "Wound Man," who has been struck by every conceivable weapon, and is accompanied by a text showing how to treat each type of injury. Last but not least, the book includes what's believed to be the first printed image of a dissection.


Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Andreas Vesalius, born 1514, was one of the most important anatomists who ever lived. Thanks to him, we moved past an understanding of the human body based primarily on the dissection of animals and toward training that involved the direct dissection of human corpses. The Fabrica was written by Vesalius and published when he was a 28-year-old professor at the University of Padua. Its detailed woodcuts, the most accurate anatomical illustrations up to that point, influenced the depiction of anatomy for centuries to come. "After this book, anatomy divided up into pre-Vesalian and post-Vesalian," Garner says. You can see Vesalius himself in the book's frontispiece (he's the one pointing to the corpse and looking at the viewer). "Vesalius is trying to make a point that he himself is doing the dissection, he believes that to understand the body you have to open it up and look at it," Garner explains.


Flap anatomy from Thomas Geminus's Compendiosa
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

There was no copyright in the 16th century, and Vesalius's works were re-used by a variety of people for centuries. The first was in Flemish printer and engraver Thomas Geminus’s Compendiosa, which borrowed from several of Vesalius's works. The first edition was published in London just two years after the Fabrica. Alongside a beautiful dedication page made for Elizabeth I and inlaid with real gemstones, the book also includes an example of a "flap anatomy" or a fugitive leaf, which was printed separately with parts that could be cut out and attached to show the various layers of the human body, all the way down to the intestines. As usual for the time, the female is depicted as pregnant, and she holds a mirror that says "know thyself" in Latin.


Illustration from William Cowper's The Anatomy of Humane Bodies
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

After Vesalius, there was little new in anatomy texts until the Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo published his Anatomia humani corporis in 1685. The work was expensive and not much of a financial success, so Bidloo sold excess plates to the English anatomist William Cowper, who published the plates with an English text without crediting Bidloo (a number of angry exchanges between the two men followed). The copperplate engravings were drawn by Gérard de Lairesse, who Garner notes was "incredibly talented." But while the engravings are beautiful, they're not always anatomically correct, perhaps because the relationship between de Lairesse and Bidloo was fraught (Bidloo was generally a bit difficult). The skeleton shown above is depicted holding an hourglass, by then a classic of death iconography.


17th Century Ivory Manikin
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

These exquisite figures are a bit of a mystery: It was originally thought that they were used in doctors’ offices to educate pregnant women about what was happening to their bodies, but because of their lack of detail, scholars now think they were more likely expensive collector's items displayed in cabinets of curiosity by wealthy male physicians. The arms of the manikins (the term for anatomical figures like this) lift up, allowing the viewer to take apart their removable hearts, intestines, and stomachs; the female figure also has a little baby inside her uterus. There are only about 100 of these left in the world, mostly made in Germany, and NYAM has seven.


Illustration from Bernhard Siegfried Albinus's Tabulae Sceleti
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

One of the best-known anatomists of the 18th century, the Dutch anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus went to medical school at age 12 and had a tenured position at the University of Leiden by the time he was 24. The Tabulae Sceleti was his signature work. The artist who worked on the text, Jan Wandelaar, had studied with Gérard de Lairesse, the artist who worked with Bidloo. Wandelaar and Albinus developed what Garner says was a bizarre method of suspending cadavers from the ceiling in the winter and comparing them to a (very cold and naked) living person lying on the floor in the same pose. Albinus also continued the dreamy, baroque funerary landscape of his predecessors, and his anatomy is "very, very accurate," according to Garner.

The atlas also features an appearance by Clara, a celebrity rhinoceros, who was posed with one of the skeletons. "When Albinus is asked why [he included a rhinoceros], he says, 'Oh, Clara is just another natural wonder of the world, she's this amazing creation,' but really we think Clara is there to sell more atlases because she was so popular," Garner says.


Circus performer Georg Constantin as depicted in Ferdinand Hebra's dermatological atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

By the mid-19th century, dermatology had started to emerge as its own discipline, and the Vienna-based Ferdinand Hebra was a leading light in the field. He began publishing this dermatological atlas in 1856 (it appeared in 10 installments), featuring chromolithographs that showed different stages of skin diseases and other dermatological irregularities.

"While some of the images are very disturbing, they also tend to adhere to Victorian portrait conventions, with very ornate hair, and [subjects] looking off in the distance," Garner says. But one of the most famous images from the book has nothing to do with disease—it's a depiction of Georg Constantin, a well-known Albanian circus performer in his day, who was covered in 388 tattoos of animals, flowers, and other symbols. He travelled throughout Europe and North America, and was known as "Prince Constantine" during a spell with Barnum's Circus. (The image is also available from NYAM as a coloring sheet.)


19th century Obstetrical Pocket Phantom
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Obstetrical phantoms, often made of cloth, wood, or leather, were used to teach medical students about childbirth. This "pocket phantom" was originally published in Germany, and Garner explains that because it was made out of paper, it was much cheaper for medical students. The accompanying text, translated in Philadelphia, tells how to arrange the phantom and describes the potential difficulties of various positions.


Image from Robert Dickinson's Birth Atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Robert Dickinson was a Brooklyn gynecologist, early birth control advocate, and active member of NYAM. His Birth Atlas is illustrated with incredibly lifelike terracotta models created by New Jersey sculptor Abram Belskie. The models were exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where they became incredibly popular, drawing around 700,000 people according to Garner. His depictions "are very beautiful and serene, and a totally different way of showing fetal development than anything that had come before," Garner notes.


The Bodyscope
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

This midcentury cardboard anatomy guide contains male and female figures as well as rotating wheels, called volvelles, that can be turned to display details on different parts of the body as well as accompanying explanatory text. The Bodyscope is also decorated with images of notable medical men—and "wise" sayings about God's influence on the body.


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