Paramount Pictures has been drawn into a potentially huge legal battle over the rights to Top Gun. The family of the Israeli writer whose article inspired the 1986 Tom Cruise movie Top Gun is suing film studio Paramount Pictures for copyright infringement over its sequel, Top Gun: Maverick. According to a lawsuit filed on Monday in the California federal court, they claim Paramount did not have the rights to Ehud Yonay's 1983 story when it released the sequel Top Gun: Maverick last month, relying on a provision in US copyright law that allows authors to reclaim the rights to their works after waiting a period of time, normally 35 years. In other words, they are claiming that the rights to the story reverted back to them in January 2020 after sending Paramount a notice of termination. They are seeking an injunction to block the studio from further exploiting the Top Gun sequel.

So what on earth is this all about?

  • The case arises out of a claim that Paramount did not re-acquire (and of course pay for) the requisite film and ancillary rights to the Yonay copyrighted story prior to the completion and release of the sequel. A key part of the case will turn on whether the movie is actually a derivative based on the original copyright work. The original copyright work is a story written by Yonay in 1983 about a naval training base focused on the pilots and their experiences, referring to hotshot pilot “Yogi” and his radio officer “Possum.”
  • There will then be an assessment of what rights exactly Jerry Bruckheimer bought in 1983 when he produced the original movie. There may well be arguments that the purchase may not have been necessary to produce the first Top Gun movie.
  • Then whether Paramount actually would have needed to secure a new licence to the Yonay story, assuming that rights did in fact revert to the Yonays in 2020.
  • Paramount will no doubt deny that the new movie is a derivative of the original copyrighted 1983 story. In essence, Paramount may argue that the sequel’s story does not rely on the Yonay 1983 story for the original elements included in Top Gun: Maverick.
  • We also have to remember that this is on a particular provision of US copyright law so we have a way to go before we start drawing out conclusions for the international copyright and film community.

We are going to see a lot of different arguments for sure. Who will win through? Watch this space.