Where is the line drawn between an author or screenwriter being inspired by a story, and simply lifting plot points? Well, hopefully, it's just before they can be accused of plagiarism, or sued for copyright infringement. Some incredibly well-known creators have faced these allegations for their most famous works.
These allegations span film, literature, and television. Some of these cases were brought to court; others died with finger-pointing and speculation. If you’re curious about some of the most famous accusations of plagiarism or copyright infringement across science fiction and fantasy, take a look at the roundup below.
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J.K. Rowling has been accused of plagiarism and copyright infringement more than once. The first accusations of infringement to be brought against her were for allegedly lifting terms and character names from Nancy Stouffer’s The Legend of RAH and the Muggles. The term ‘muggle’ is used to describe non-magical people in Rowling's work. It was also alleged that Rowling took inspiration for Harry Potter's name from the character ‘Larry Potter’ in another of Stouffer's works.
Rowling was also accused of plagiarism by Adrian Jacobs’ estate. Jacobs was the author of the book The Adventures of Willy the Wizard. The estate claimed that certain plot points of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire were lifted from Jacobs’ work.
Twilight: Breaking Dawn
Stephenie Meyer is famous for her Twilight series, but she was briefly also known for a lawsuit filed against her for copyright infringement. Hachette Book Group USA was sent a cease and desist order by Jordan Scott for the final book in Meyer's saga, Breaking Dawn. Scott claimed that Meyer’s book contained several “striking and substantial” similarities to her work, The Nocturne.
These similarities included the main character being transformed into a vampire, a pregnant woman growing sick because her child has evil powers, and a scene with a pregnant woman dying, among other things. A judge later dismissed the claim, ruling that the works were “not substantially similar as a matter of law.”
While George Lucas’ expansive universe has been compared to to several other works, the similarities between Star Wars and Frank Herbert’s Dune are striking.
From a desert planet with two moons to an addictive drug called spice, it’s easy to see the lines that can be drawn between the two. When Herbert was asked if he noticed any similarities between his work and Lucas’, Herbert reportedly said, “I will try hard not to sue.”
Brain Herbert, Frank Herbert’s son, claims in Dreamer of Dune that Frank Herbert “picked out sixteen points of what he called ‘absolute identity’ between his book and the movie” when he first saw Star Wars.
The accusations hurled at Lucas did not stop there, however. David Preston, the writer of the script ‘Space Pets,' accused Lucas of stealing ideas from his script, including the character design and name of the Ewoks. Preston sued Lucas for $128 million dollars.
The judgement handed down was in favor of Lucas—and Preston was actually ordered to pay Lucas for the cost of his court fees.
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The Alien franchise is known for many things—including accusations of plagiarism.
Alien’s screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, is said to have taken inspiration from the book Voyage of the Space Beagle by A.E. Van Vogt.
The story is about an alien boarding a spaceship and hunting its crew down. Vogt sued 20th Century Fox, and the studio settled out of court for $50,000 in 1979.
The next claim of plagiarism came from David Cronenberg. Cronenberg claimed that the Chestburster was eerily similar to the creatures from his 1975 film Shivers. The creature in Cronenberg’s work was a parasite that burrows into a host's body before burning out of its hiding space. Sound familiar?
The Terminator and Avatar
James Cameron is no stranger to plagiarism allegations. These center on two of his most famous films: Avatar and Terminator.
There were claims that Terminator was a lift of Harlan Ellison’s science fiction work “Soldier," an episode of The Outer Limits tv show. The episode was adapted by Ellison from his own 1957 story, “Soldier from Tomorrow.” The story is about two soldiers being thrown into a time portal. One becomes trapped; the other appears on a city street in 1964.
Ellison was incensed that Cameron’s opening segment of The Terminator seemed to be a shot-for-shot remake of “Soldier." The author never brought a real suit against Cameron, but it’s considered industry knowledge that Ellison and the studio settled outside of court for around $65,000.
Copyright infringement claims involving 2009's Avatar came from several different sources, including fantasy artist Roger Dean, and multiple novelists and screenwriters. None of these claims have yet to prevail over Cameron.
The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions
The Wachowskis were accused of copyright-infringement for their genre-defining trilogy, The Matrix. Thomas Althouse brought a suit against the Wachowskis, Joel Silver, and Warner Bros. for copyright infringement—for $300 million. Althouse claimed that The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions used plot points from his unproduced screenplay, The Immortals.
A judge threw the suit out, ruling that “the basic premises of The Matrix trilogy and The Immortals are so different that it would be unreasonable to find their plots substantially similar.”
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