Copyright conundrums in the film industry

Written by Tom Synott | August 18, 2022


A number of readers may have seen recently the drama involving the popular film franchise ‘Top Gun’: it has nothing to do with shooting but rather some of the slightly more unusual aspects of American copyright law.

The background to the dispute is an interesting one: the film franchise’s original installment was inspired by an article published in 1983 by the famous Israeli writer and director Ehud Yonay, entitled “Top Guns”. The article’s source material came from a series of lengthy interviews given by two pilots as they went through the US Navy Fighter Weapons School training program.

Paramount bought the rights from Mr. Yonay in 1983 and the article went on to form the basis for much of the first film. Following its massive success, the studio predictably set about creating a sequel which was due to begin filming in 2019 but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the intervening period, Mr. Yonay’s widow and son wrote to Paramount in 2018 stating that the rights in his original article would revert to the estate in 2020 (relying on a particular quirk of American copyright law that allows authors to reclaim rights to their works after a sufficient period of time -usually 35 years).

Mr. Yonay’s widow and son have now taken Paramount to court claiming that they failed to reacquire the rights following the 2020 expiry date and are seeking substantial damages in addition to an injunction to stop the sequel being shown.

Briffa comment

The case will likely revolve around the exact dates when the rights were bought and when the notice of termination was deemed received. It should also be noted that the provision being relied upon by Mr Yonay’s estate is particular to US copyright law and so may be unlikely to have an impact further afield.

Nonetheless, this case serves as a timely reminder for anyone working in the film and television industries of the need to secure intellectual property rights. Whilst this is a complex topic, at a bare minimum creators need to be aware of issues surrounding:

· copyright – do you have consent from the owner of any underlying script and/or musical compositions used in the film?

· location releases – do you have consent from the owner of the location where you are filming?

· personnel – do you have appropriate documentation in place with cast and crew to ensure they cannot object to the film being commercialized?

· trade marks – does any filming include trade marks to which the owner might object?

Here at Briffa, the team benefits from over 25 years’ experience assisting with all aspects of the film and television industries from production to distribution of content. If you need any further information in this regard, please do feel free to get in touch with us via

Written by Tom Synott – Senior Associate

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