In 2012, Luc Besson's mid-budget action factory delivered "Lockout," a sci-fi-ish action movie that saw a game Guy Pearce leading a dumb yet more-enjoyable-than-it-had-any-right-to-be adventure about an ex-con tasked with rescuing the President's daughter from a prison… in space! Like I said, it's dumb. The box office was dreadful and reviews were worse, though on a positive note, Box Office described the picture as "a sleek, slick and shameless rip-off of John Carpenter's Snake Plissken films 'Escape from New York' and 'Escape from L.A.' " And Carpenter himself agreed.
The director took production company EuropaCorp and the film's writers — Stephen St. Leger, James Mather and Besson— to court over the matter, claiming they plagiarized his work. Surprisingly, Carpenter has won. These kinds of cases are notoriously difficult to prove, let alone win, but in this case, a French court ruled that enough similar distinctive elements from Carpenter's "Escape From New York" were borrowed to merit a sanction. Here's an excerpt of the ruling via Observatoire européen de l'audiovisuel:
A number of elements present in both ‘[Escape From New York]’ and ‘Lock-Out’ could in fact be considered as stock elements in cinema. Other elements differed, such as the pace of the film and the special effects, but this could be because of the amount of time that had passed between the releases of the two films —1981 and 2012— and by the evolution in both techniques and mentalities in the intervening period. The court nevertheless noted many similarities between the two science-fiction films: both presented an athletic, rebellious and cynical hero sentenced to a period of isolated incarceration —despite his heroic past— who is given the offer of setting out to free the President of the United States or his daughter held hostage in exchange for his freedom; he manages, undetected, to get inside the place where the hostage is being held after a flight in a glider/space shuttle, and finds there a former associate who dies; he pulls off the mission in extremis, and at the end of the film keeps the secret documents recovered in the course of the mission. The court held that the combination of these elements, which gave the film ‘New York 1997’ its particular appearance and originality, had been reproduced in ‘Lock-Out’, apart from certain scenes and specific details that were only present in the first film. The difference in the location of the action and the more modern character featured in ‘Lock-Out’ was not enough to differentiate the two films.
Europacorp has been ordered to pay 20, 000 euros to Carpenter, 10 000 euros to the screenwriter (the script is credited to both Carpenter and Nick Castle), and 50 000 euros to the rights owner of the movie. Granted, these are fairly paltry sums for a company as big as Europacorp, but it's a very significant ruling. While art forms have a long history of borrowing and recycling elements, the judges in this case seem to say that there is a line that can be crossed, and that some genre creations do have enough distinctive characteristics to be protected by law. Thoughts? Let us know what you think below.