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Morawski v. Lightstorm Entertainment

District Court grants defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claims of unauthorized use of plaintiff’s ideas, without compensation, in defendants’ motion picture Avatar, finding that defendants proved on summary judgment that they independently created Avatar and didn’t use plaintiff’s ideas.

Plaintiff Gerald Morawski brought suit against James Cameron and Lightstorm Entertainment, the production company he heads, asserting claims for breach of an express contract, breach of an implied-in-fact contract, fraud and negligent misrepresentation based on allegations that defendants used plaintiff’s original ideas to create the 2009 blockbuster motion picture Avatar. In 1991, after Cameron purchased artwork from Morawski, a visual effects consultant, he and Morawski signed a Confidentiality and Non-disclosure Agreement providing, in pertinent part, that if defendant Lightstorm was interested in using plaintiff’s ideas or artwork, it would enter into further negotiations. Morawski later met with Cameron to pitch a film titled Guardians of Eden and provided Cameron with a Conceptual Summary of his ideas. Lightstorm declined to develop the project but later developed and produced Avatar. Morawski asserted that Avatar incorporated original elements of his film idea without his consent. The court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment on all of plaintiff’s claims, primarily on the finding that Cameron independently created Avatar.

At the outset, the court noted that to establish breach of contract, plaintiff had to prove that defendants used his intellectual property without his permission and that defendants could rebut this contention as a matter of law with evidence of independent creation. Cameron asserted that almost every aspect of Avatar was drawn from one of his prior works or other well-known stories. The court agreed, basing its finding on Cameron’s declaration, a review of those prior works, notes for Avatar that expressly referenced some of those works as inspiration for Avatar, and the declaration of Cameron’s writing partner that Cameron had developed and discussed those ideas with him prior to meeting plaintiff. In rejecting plaintiff’s argument that Cameron’s earlier works could not form the basis for the defense of independent creation because they were “nothing like” Avatar, the court found that the fact that none of the earlier works exactly duplicated the story of Avatar did not defeat Cameron’s claim that he used them as inspiration, rather than using the plaintiff’s work. Ultimately, the court found that “it is clear that Cameron built Avatar around common, frequently utilized plot lines, and incorporated characters, themes, and ideas he had previously created to produce an original version of these well-known stories.” While defendants’ receipt of plaintiff’s ideas and the similarity between those ideas and Avatar created an inference that defendants used plaintiff’s idea, defendants rebutted this inference with direct evidence of independent creation. As a result, the court held that Morawski’s claim for breach of an express contract failed as a matter of law because Cameron independently created Avatar and did not use Morawski’s ideas.

Likewise, the court concluded that plaintiff’s breach of an implied-in-fact contract claim failed as a matter of law. Plaintiff could not establish that defendants had used his ideas, in light of defendants’ undisputed evidence that Cameron had independently created Avatar. The court also noted that a claim based on an implied-in-fact contract cannot lie when an express contract covering the same subject matter exists. Because plaintiff and defendants had a contract covering defendants’ use of plaintiff’s ideas, the court found that plaintiff could not recover on an implied-in-fact contract theory.

Plaintiff asserted fraud and negligent misrepresentation claims based on allegations that defendants had not intended to perform under their agreement with him and therefore had misrepresented that they would not use his ideas without compensating him. Under California law, a negligent misrepresentation claim cannot be based on a false promise. The court found that plaintiff’s negligent misrepresentation claim was, in reality, a negligent false promise claim and granted defendants’ motion on that claim.

The court found that plaintiff’s fraud claim also failed as a matter of law for several reasons. First, plaintiff produced no evidence that defendants had not intended to perform their obligations at the time they entered into the contract. Second, the undisputed evidence showed that defendants had independently created Avatar without using plaintiff’s ideas and therefore did not breach the agreement. And third, even if plaintiff could establish a misrepresentation, he failed to provide any evidence that he suffered damages as a result.