Ideas – they’re tricky things. Some people work hard on them their whole life and never see a dime. Others seem to just pluck them out of the air like butterflies. In Hollywood, where selling an idea can literally make you a millionaire, they often get stolen. In this feature, we’ll share the 10 nastiest cases of plagiarism in show business.
The most recent case of Hollywood plagiarism at press time comes courtesy of "Transformers" star Shia LaBeouf, who released a short film about online critics titled “HowardCantour.com” that completely stole its plot and dialogue from a short comic by Ghost World creator Daniel Clowes titled Justin M. Damiano. LaBeouf changed a few names in his version, but nowhere did he credit Clowes for his work, instead claiming that he came up with the concept organically. When the very same online critics called him out, LaBeouf apologized – with text he stole from a 2009 Yahoo! Answers webpage. The story is still developing, but we’d expect Clowes is due for a heavy cash payout.
A Fistful of Dollars
Sergio Leone’s classic Western flick "A Fistful Of Dollars" is one of the high points of the genre, with a stunning performance by Clint Eastwood as a drifter who wanders into the middle of a conflict between two families in a small Mexican border town. Unfortunately, it’s also an unauthorized shot-for-shot remake of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic "Yojimbo" with a change of setting. Kurosawa sent Leone a note saying, “Nice movie, but it was my movie,” and sued him for a percentage of the profits. They eventually settled out of court for $100,000 and 15 percent, worldwide – a pretty nice cut, all things considered.
Harlan Ellison is one of the most litigious men in science fiction, and he’s levied dozens of suits against people he’s accused of swiping his ideas. However, his suit against James Cameron for "The Terminator" was a little different. Ellison had written an episode of "The Outer Limits" called Demon With a Glass Hand, about a robotic soldier from the future disguised as a human being who gets sent backwards in time. Orion Pictures decided to pay a settlement out of court before the case went to trial, and Ellison got some cash and a credit in the film.
Coming to America
In 1982, noted comedy writer Art Buchwald wrote a treatment for Paramount called “King for a Day,” in which the protagonist was a rich, arrogant African ruler who travels to America. It was intended to star Eddie Murphy. Paramount bought the treatment and spent a few years trying to get a script written before abandoning it in 1985. The rights went back to Buchwald, who sold it to Warner Brothers. Then, Paramount made a movie with Eddie Murphy as a rich, arrogant African ruler who travels to America called "Coming to America." Buchwald wasn’t paid or credited, so he sued. Paramount settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
As a former video store clerk, Quentin Tarantino watched a whole bunch of movies. His films are obviously tributes to what he knows and loves, but sometimes things get a little too close. "Reservoir Dogs," the 1992 heist film that made him a talent to be watched, is the most blatant. Hong Kong film director Ringo Lam’s "City On Fire" is about a group of jewel thieves who swipe a bunch of diamonds while wearing matching suits. What follows is a Mexican standoff and a bloody ending, just like in "Reservoir Dogs." No suits were ever filed, but it’s well known in Hollywood that the flick is a total rip-off.
Look Who’s Talking
Amy Heckerling’s 1989 rom-com starring John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Bruce Willis as the voice of a baby was a fairly big hit – it made almost $300 million worldwide - and spawned a franchise, but originality wasn’t its strong suit. After the film was released, writers Rita Stern and Jeanne Meyers noticed some staggering similarities to "Special Delivery," a comedy treatment they’d put together at Heckerling’s request three years earlier. A judge noted that there was significant overlap between the two projects, including some dialogue that was lifted word-for-word, and studio TriStar Pictures settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money.
The character of Count Dracula is now in the public domain, but it wasn’t always the case. Bram Stoker’s novel was still under protection in 1921 when German director F.W. Murnau wanted to adapt it to the screen. Murnau swiped the plot and characters and changed their names to make "Nosferatu," one of the most gorgeous and terrifying films of its era. The tale of “Count Orlok” was close enough to the original that Stoker’s heirs sued Murnau and Prana Film. The court ordered all copies be burned, but thankfully one was saved and preserved into the modern day.
Sylvester Stallone’s iconic breakthrough film told the tale of a rough-and-tumble boxer from the Tri-State Area who got a shot against a flamboyant world champion and pushed him to the limit. It was a critical and commercial success, but it was also copied from the life of real-life boxer Chuck Wepner. Stallone wrote the script two weeks after watching New Jersey-born Wepner go 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali, and the parallels between the two are obvious. Sly denied it and offered to pay off Wepner with movie roles, but after 20 years of not being cast in anything, Chuck realized he was being played and sued. Stallone settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
Here’s another classic movie that had a nasty little blotch of plagiarism behind it. Ridley Scott’s classic "Alien" came from a screenplay by Dan O’Bannion, but that writer got a little inspiration from Black Destroyer, a sci-fi short story by writer A.E. Van Vogt. The story, which ran in the 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, involves a stealthy alien life form stalking the crew of a small spaceship, and its sequel Discord In Scarlet from the December issue featured the same ship encountering an alien that needs a human host for its egg to incubate in.
Next: The Biggest Frauds of Our Time
It’s impossible to list just one of the films made by direct-to-video production studio The Asylum in this feature, because almost every single one is a hilarious thievery of somebody else’s idea. The company, founded in 1997 by former Village Roadshow executives, has one mission: cash in on Hollywood films with low-budget ripoffs. Their first success was an adaptation of "War of the Worlds" (in the public domain) at the same time as the Tom Cruise version, and they’ve gone on to make “hits” like "Transmorphers," "Atlantic Rim" and "Sunday School Musical." They most recently had an injunction placed against them from releasing "Age of the Hobbits" on the same date as the Peter Jackson film.