“The copyright to the story reverted to the Yonays under the Copyright Act, but Paramount deliberately ignored this, thumbing its nose at the statute.”
— Complaint against Paramount Pictures
“These claims are without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously.”
— Paramount statement
Paramount Pictures was in need of a hit. Immediately prior to the pandemic, it had suffered several major big-budget motion picture flops, and it was losing out to major studios that had cash cow franchises like Star Wars, Marvel, Harry Potter, James Bond and more. And then the pandemic hit and shut theaters down, making the studio’s financial picture even more bleak.
Thus, it was with great fanfare that “Top Gun: Maverick” hit theaters a few weeks ago. And it was a massive, massive hit. It’s been the #1 movie in the United States since its release, and as I type this, it is nearing $600 million in box office gross worldwide. It was precisely what Paramount needed at this moment. Except, that is, for the lawsuit from the family of the man who created the original, written story that Top Gun is based on.
Shosh and Yuval Yonay, who are the widow and the son of the late Ehud Yonay, have filed a lawsuit in the federal court for the central district of California. The original story at the center of the dispute was written by Ehud and appeared in a 1983 edition of California magazine. It was called “Top Guns”. Paramount purchased the film rights and three years later, in 1986, Tom Cruise hit the silver screen in his flight suit.
Copyright law in America allows the original creator of a licensed work to regain the rights after 35 years, and the Yonays did so in 2020. Paramount still owns the rights to the film, including the ability to sell copies of it, show it in theaters, sell DVDs, stream it, etc. But in order to legally create a new derivative work, they would again have to pay for the rights to the underlying story.
Paramount was aware of the claim by the Yonays before the movie release and has given two alternative defenses. First, they claim that this work is further derivative of their original license and thus permitted. Second, and somewhat contradictory to the first claim, they say that the movie was completed before the end of January 2020 and just delayed by COVID restrictions and released later. The Yonays claim that filming didn’t finish until 2021, and there may, therefore, be a need for Tom Cruise to exit the pilot’s seat, and take the witness stand instead, in order to determine the exact filming timeline.
Since we’ve referred to how much money has been made on this film it’s also a good time to talk about how individual movie theaters make money showing films. If you go to the Marcus and pay $12 for a movie ticket (or better yet to the Strand and pay only $7) the theater keeps only a small fraction of that ticket price.
The studios get to set the amount of the ticket price that they’ll take, but for a major blockbuster or large studio, it’s not usual for them to take 60%, 65% or even 70% of the ticket price. And they have complete power to set that amount since they can simply decline to allow the theater to show the movie if it won’t pay the amount. Even worse, the studio can increase the amount after the film has already been in the theater for a week or two and require the theater to pay the higher amount on tickets already sold. If you’ve ever wondered why movie concessions cost so much, it’s largely because the theaters actually make very little money on the tickets themselves.
It’s likely that the dispute between the Yonays and Paramount will be settled out of court (especially since Paramount has some money to put toward such a settlement due to the success of the film), but if not, it’s possible that a third Top Gun film could be ready before this lawsuit finally works its way through trial and appeals.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.