Ninth Circuit: 'Pirates of the Caribbean' Copyright Claims Ship Has Sailed

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 10, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The way that Hollywood recycles movie plots, you would think that all the good stories have already been told. And pirate stories have been around for centuries. So how do you separate new, original works from the many predecessors? Or, more accurately, how do you prove a new movie based on old pirates isn't lifted from someone else's work?

One way is to show them that you have even older artwork, pre-dating their own and ask them to sign a release, absolving you from future copyright liability. But what if someone says they found artwork even older than what you've presented, and claims you altered your artwork, and claims you fraudulently obtained the release? That's what Royce Mathew says The Walt Disney Company did, in the latest chapter of their ongoing feud over the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise.

Red Skies at Morning

Mathew and Disney have been sparring for quite some time about the Pirates films, which Mathew claims Disney lifted from his own tales. Courthouse News has the back story:

Mathew first sued Disney in 2005 but dropped that lawsuit after Disney showed him theme park art by artist Marc Davis that it said predated Mathew's works. Disney said it backed up its claim that it had created a disputed supernatural story element in which a curse turns pirates into living skeletons when they are under moonlight.
Mathew sued Disney two more times, claiming in his last lawsuit that the court should rescind the release he'd signed and revive his copyright claims. He said he'd discovered new artwork by Collin Campbell in the book "The Art of Walt Disney World Resort," and that Disney had "altered and tampered" with Campbell's work to support its claim that it had independently created the skeletons-in-moonlight element.

Red Skies at Night

The Ninth Circuit dismissed Mathew's request to rescind the release, saying the four years that elapsed between his discovery of the new artwork and the filing of his suit had unfairly prejudiced Disney. The media giant argued that it had relied upon Mathew's release in expanding its Pirates empire, and never would've invested so much if it knew it could be sued again or owe him royalties.

In a dissent, Judge Richard Clifton found that claim dubious, at best:

It is hardly obvious that Disney would have abandoned such a lucrative movie series simply because Mathew threatened to try to rescind the release. Mathew did not notify Disney of his claim until after the first, very successful movie in the series had been released. Substantial revenues had already started flowing to Disney before the release was ever negotiated with Mathew.

But for now, Captain Jack Sparrow remains free upon the high seas, at liberty to add movie after movie to his treasure chest without fear of copyright retribution.

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