back to article Brit fantasy artist sues James Cameron over Avatar world

The highest-grossing film of all time has once again found itself in the courts as a British artist has accused Avatar's creators of copyright infringement, breach of implied contact, unfair competition and unjust enrichment. "Pathways" painting by W. Roger Dean, also featured on the album cover of Yessongs (by English prog …


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  1. Oninoshiko

    Good artists copy; great artists steal.


    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Good artists copy; great artists steal.

      However the cover artist seems to have stolen the idea for a world encompassing tree from Norse myth. If you thought Apple's lawyers were bad you haven't been up against Odin

  2. Bobthe2nd

    Tree of Life

    Or maybe James Cameron had been on a trip to Disney World Animal Kingdom?

  3. jubtastic1

    I hope not

    Even though its arguably derivative, the idea that Mr Dean now owns rights to any works that include nods to his artwork, no matter the medium, is ridiculous.

    I was a fan of his work in my youth but I think he should sit down and watch the "Everything is a Remix" series, for some perspective.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The suit is the fourth that Avatar has faced ..

    Avatar can't be derived from all four, that would mean that they are in turn derived from each other, not to mention Deathworld or Hothouse or old episodes of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits.

  5. Anomalous Cowshed

    Regardless of the merits

    Regardless of the merits of the case, or of the morals, or even common sense, such lawsuits are brought because of the opportunities that they represent - mainly the opportunity to score an out of court settlement. Because as vultures in the legal profession know well, if you apply enough pressure, and dig up enough dirt, then however senseless your claim, the other party may offer you something, just in order to avoid bad publicity or the airing of skeletons kept at the back of the cupboard. Most or all of the pay-out will go to the lawyers, but then most opportunistic lawsuits are brought at the instigation of these kinds of lawyers.

  6. Darren Barratt

    No chance

    In the press he said that his case was backed by "Several statements on the Internet".

    He'll be laughed out of court.

    1. Jolyon Smith

      Re: No chance

      Those statements on the internet will be cited as evidence that, without prompting, coaching, encouragement or incentive, a number of people have independently formed the opinion that the world of AVATAR is to a significant extent derived from his art works.

      And that is no laughing matter, as any copyright lawyer will tell you.

  7. Dr Insanity

    Rip Offs or just similar ideas

    The other Avatar, of Airbending fame lived on floating mountains as well didn't he? Knuckles the Echidna resided on the floating Emerald Island in Sonic the Hedgehog. I know I've seen it in Final Fantasy before and a quick browse of TVTropes brings up plenty more examples - Surely there's some sort of prior art type argument to protect this one?

    As for "a film project about evil mining interests destroying a planet and an indigenous people who were at one with their rainforest environment": Pochahontas, Last of the Mohicans, Ferngully...

    Fair enough if the artist sold him the idea and he created the film, but the same story has been told a hundred times before, some of them even based on real life. Are we going to have a stream of creative infringements every time someone takes a well known story and tags "in space" onto the concept, the same as we have a bunch of IP lawsuits where people are taking a well known and well utilised concept and tagging on "on a mobile device"

    Much as, like any true Brit should, I like to support an underdog; it upsets me when so many people set out to cash in one someone else's success. William Roger Dean would likely go down in history alongside artists like Storm Thorgerson for some of the most interesting or memorable album covers in history; now, instead, he will likely not go down in history as yet another bandwagon riding scavenger, taking what they can from someone elses success story

    1. Fibbles

      Re: Rip Offs or just similar ideas

      Indeed, the floating mountain/castle is such a common trope in both fantasy artwork and literature I had to do a double-take when I read that Dean seemed to be trying to claim ownership of the idea. Though there may be more to this case, there may be actual scenes in Avatar copying closely the composition of Dean's paintings as well as the underlying ideas. As always though most news outlets are running with the bare minimum of details.

      1. MrT

        Jonathan Swift...

        ... is no longer around to cry "Shame on you, sir!" at Dean, hurling copies of Gulliver's Travels at him...

      2. Don Jefe

        Re: Rip Offs or just similar ideas

        A floating castle was featured in Douglas Adams works. Additionally one can find almost every aspect of Avatar represented in Doungeons & Dragons RPG books as far back as the 80's and 90's, even the creatures. This is just silliness.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Rip Offs or just similar ideas

          Rip Offs.

          Roger Dean's work predates Douglas Adams' work by about 10 years and the Yessongs cover predates Avatar by 36 years.

        2. Jolyon Smith

          Re: Rip Offs or just similar ideas

          When you say "Douglas Adams works", do you mean paintings ?

          The issue here isn't the IDEA of floating castles or the IDEA of a huge f***-off tree, it's the direct copying of particular visual representation on those ideas.

          As for the amount of stealing involved in AVATAR, I doubt you would get very far defending a charge of bank robbery by pointing out that you had in fact robbed LOTS of different banks. ;)

    2. Stevie

      Re: Rip Offs or just similar ideas

      "William Roger Dean would likely go down in history alongside artists like Storm Thorgerson for some of the most interesting or memorable album covers in history; now, instead, he will likely not go down in history as yet another bandwagon riding scavenger, taking what they can from someone elses success story"

      I doubt it. Dean's made his chops in the art world and then some years before the name James Cameron was on anyone's lips.

      You are aware he was known for a bit (ie a damn sight) more than the album covers by the mid 70s, aren't you?

      That said, I look forward to seeing James Cameron's new picture set in swamps infested with flying, claw-footed elephants.

  8. Lamont Cranston

    Wait a minute.

    He wants credit for Avatar? He must be looking for a big settlement if he wants a turd of that magnitude in his portfolio.

  9. Anonymous Coward

    The last Airbender

    For me there is only one true Avatar and it's most certainly not this sci-fi remake of Pocahontas (personal opinion).

    And that involves the story around Aang, the last Airbender, from a fantasy world where there are only 4 nations which each have mastered control ("bending") over one of the four ancient elements: Fire, Water, Earth and Air.

    What makes this animation series a true classic in my opinion is the way its being played out. It touches "adult" topics such as things like oppression, warfare, the ancient "power corrupts and total power corrupts totally", but also gives us an insight to the wide variety in a world. Different nations, different people, different habits.

    The best parts about this series, in my opinion of course, are the fact that it actually has an ending, the eye for details (it spans 3 seasons, which matches the 3 nations (the Air nomads had been wiped out by the Fire nation)) and...

    So you follow the series and learn almost from the first episode that the fire nation are the main oppressors here. They murdered the Air nomads for no other reason but to stop the next incarnation of the Avatar. Then they started invading the nations of the water tribes and eventually also directly assaulted the Earth nation in an attack which would most likely have taken millions of casualties (the "Scorched Earth" technique).

    So what would you expect when you'd visit this fire nation? A whole country of power hungry and war-eager people ready to chop of the heads of any outlander?

    More than often the activities of a government don't always have the support of all their citizens. Something which Avatar managed to bring to the viewers attention in a more than excellent way. There is a war? People go on with their lives, the only thing they do hope for is that their family will be home soon.

    THAT is Avatar for me.

    1. Robert Helpmann??

      Re: The last Airbender

      For me there is only one true Avatar and it's most certainly not this sci-fi remake of Pocahontas (personal opinion).

      Not Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves... In Space!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The last Airbender

        Dances with Wolves = A Man called Horse

        A Man Called Space.

        Let's not forget a dash of John Carter of Mars, a hint of Dune, three shots of Smurfs and a rip of Gaia Theory.

        1. Christoph

          Re: The last Airbender

          Remote controlled artificial lifeforms to explore an alien planet - Call Me Joe, Poul Anderson. 1957.

      2. Wyrdness

        Re: The last Airbender

        Dances with Smurfs?

    2. Darren Barratt

      Re: The last Airbender

      Gutted that M. Night Shyamalan ruined the live action version. It should have been good

  10. frank ly

    I met James Cameron in a London hotel bar once.

    I told him about my idea for a family film called Smurfs In Space. He did a lot of smiling and nodding for a couple of minutes then rushed away. He was obviously going back to his room to take notes before he forgot the details of what I said.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: I met James Cameron in a London hotel bar once.

      frank ly,

      Does that mean it's you I should punch, and demand that 5 hours of my life back?

      Well it seemed like 5 hours anyway...

      1. C 18

        Re: I met James Cameron in a London hotel bar once.

        >Well it seemed like 5 hours anyway...

        That's because it was in 3D!

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I met James Cameron in a London hotel bar once.

        You want to waste time, watch The Thin Red Line...

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Re: I met James Cameron in a London hotel bar once.

      > Smurfs In Space.

      Priceless :D

    3. John Savard

      Re: I met James Cameron in a London hotel bar once.

      Ah, but does he owe you money, or does he owe Peyo money?

  11. Frankee Llonnygog

    In these cases, there are no winners ...

    ... only lawyers

  12. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Next: Personal LSD trips copyrighted!

    I saw this blue floating island once with the huge tress and multicolored sky. S'Truth.

  13. Anonymous Coward

    I thought it was because it looked too much like "Dances with wolves" ...

  14. Mike Brown

    When i saw Avatar

    this artist is what i thought of. I dont think its sue worthy tho. I think the bloke should be flattered

  15. ratfox

    I was strongly reminded of World of Warcraft

    Floating islands in the sky - check

    Blue people - check

    Luminescent vegetation - check

    Huge tree with mystical/natural meaning for the natives - check

    I'm sure there are other examples; not that all of this has not been pretty much done a few times before.

    1. BoldMan

      Re: I was strongly reminded of World of Warcraft

      Which just goes to show that there is next to nothing original in WoW

  16. Andy 70

    shadow of the beast

    i thought the loopy rocks and stuff reminded me of a bit of sobt...

    bit of wikioole, and bam! it's the same dude that did Sotb art as in the article. i don't know the law ins and outs and copyright. just interesting an idiot like myself seeing the link....

  17. AceRimmer

    Frank Herbert

    If anyone should be getting a settlement it should be Frank Herbert. Avatar has more than a passing resemblance to the Pandora Sequence:

    Main Planet called Pandora

    World covered in an Intelligent and "networked" plant

    Humans can see,feel,control other organisms/humans

    mad man wants to control the native plant to gain access to resources

    1. Charlie van Becelaere

      Re: Frank Herbert

      or even James Blish. There are many parallels to "A Case on Conscience" from 1958.

      A spectacular novel, by the way, as is the entire four book trilogy (hmm, no wonder Adams kept going, four had already been done).

  18. lunatik96

    Infringement is rampant in the film industry

    The more powerful u r, the more u can get away with it.

    While I do see many similarities in the Yes album covers, I remember when watching the film, more than once I commented these scenes look like something off a Yes album. Not being a lawyer, I am not sure what constitutes copyright infringement, but this seems like a fair go at it.

    If Avatar was a bust, there probably wouldn't be any lawsuit. The music and film labels both incorporate some of the most immoral types. The producers (least creative on the set) walk away with the big bucks and everyone else divvies it up. Why anyone pays $12 to watch a movie in a stinky theater with drinks and butter and who knows what else on the seats is beyond me,

  19. Jamie Jones Silver badge


    Putting aside the rights or wrongs of this case, how has he been damaged to a tune of $50 million? Indeed, how has he been damaged at all?

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      He's been trying to get funding

      for a film based on his artwork for years. Then Avatar comes along and steals his thunder. I think he has a good case that he's been damaged.

    2. Jolyon Smith

      Re: Damages?

      "Damage" is an overloaded term in the legal context.

      In this case, the argument will be that Cameron should have negotiated with him for the use of his intellectual property. Had he done so, an agreement might have been reached for a few thousand bucks, if that was what the owner of the IP felt it was worth or was likely to be worth to the derivative work.

      Since no such agreement was made - and no attempt made to broker any such agreement - the owner of the IP now has a right to say that Cameron profited from the infringement of copyright and that this profit was at the cost of any fees that would have been due to him under a licensing agreement. With the benefit of hindsight it can now also be established what the value of that copyrighted work was, given the commercial success of the derivative work.

      As others have said, if AVATAR had flopped there wouldn't be a case. But not because there wouldn't be an opportunity to make money, but rather precisely because no money had been made. It's a subtle difference but an important one.

      As for the $50m damages... that represents less than 1.8% of the international box office gross of the AVATAR movie, which is a pittance given the significance of the works influence over the derived work (arguably a significant proportion of the production design and at least one key plot element) considering that this does not take into account merchandising earnings from the movie or the earnings of the anticipated sequels.

  20. Stevie


    Well it was only a matter of time.

    I sat through the Avatar credits waiting to see if Cameron, know recidivist plagiarizer of other people's work and loud complainer C/W crocodile tears of those times he feels it has been done to him, had so much as given a "thank you" to Roger Dean, so obviously the inspiration (if not the direct source) of those flying mountains and "frozen loops" of rock that made the picture so special, but wouldn't you know it, not a word.

    When we got home my wife, gorblesser, said "I've never seen anything like that scenery."

    "I have" I said, and went to dig out one of my Roger Dean artwork books (Magnetic Storm, I think)

    "Look familiar?" I said as I held up one showing the floating boulder field.

    "Is that from the movie?" she asked.

    "No. It was painted about ten years ago. Here, look at this one" (the loops of rock).

    "When was that one painted?" she asked, eyes wide at the near perfect match with the movie scenery.

    "Nearly two decades ago. It was used on a Yes album cover in the early 90s."

    "Maybe the artist did the movie scenes" she opined.

    "If he did, he didn't take the credit. No, I think we are seeing the return of James "other people's work is in my public domain" Cameron here".

    I'm looking at a picture on a Dean calendar right now (an old calendar) which has those flying boulders soaring majestically in the mist. No doubt Cameron actually conceptualized it, then Dean read his mind from the past in order to paint it.

    Stick it to the plagiarist bastard, Roger. I'm on your side, as will be anyone who looks at the evidence. Even the colors match.

    Plus, he's a repeat offender.

  21. Cucumber C Face

    Why no stills from the movie?

    I have never seen Avatar (yes - I'm the one) - whereas I am familiar with Roger Dean's work.

    Everywhere these news stories are replete with pictures of Roger Dean's LP sleeve art. None of them have stills from the movie. It's almost like Cameron doesn't want his work copied.

  22. lowwall

    Spirobranchus giganteus

    The best part of the movie for me was looking at the scenery (the worst was the plot). It was obvious to me that most of the flora, fauna and landscapes were borrowed from the real world, including the undersea world. Examples... An image search on "Huangshan" provides a much more likely source for the visualization of the floating islands than old prog-rock album covers and the major trees were clearly modelled on banyans and baobabs. As a scuba diver, I'm also convinced that the giant Christmas Tree worms (helicoradians in the movie) were Cameron's nod to all tropical water divers.

    1. Stevie

      Re: Spirobranchus giganteus

      No-one is suggesting that Cameron took everything from the same source, just that the floating boulders and looping arches of rock match very VERY closely stuff that Dean did years before Avatar was possible. Don't take my word for it, go look for yourself. The book is in print and available from Amazon.

      I normally abhor these sorts of plagiarism trawls (I wasn't 100% behind Harlan Ellison's case against Cameron - but could see his point) but the similarity in the images goes beyond homage and inspiration. At some point even the staunchest "art is born to be free" exponent has to agree that merely copying someone else's stuff isn't art, it's just stealing. What sort of value one puts on that is open to debate of course.

      Artists were imitating Dean's style back in the 70s, but at least they had the decency to do their own work using the style in their own way to make something new and original, not simply lifting the imagery wholesale.

  23. James O'Shea Silver badge

    no case

    Frankly, _Avatar_ should have been called 'Poul Anderson's Dances With Pocahontas'. Anderson's estate has a much better claim than Dean does, and it doesn't have much of a claim.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Double helix" does not mean what he thinks it means.

    I can only see a single helix there.

  25. cyber7

    Common Tropes

    The suit is so much rubbish. The tree depicted in both works is the Acacia Erioloba, which is the most common tree on the African Savanna. Simply Google 'Acacia Tree' and see what I mean.

    As for the floating mountains: It's a common trope. See works from Fantasy artist Christophe Vacher that was doing the floating mountain thing for years before Avatar. And let's not forget the floating Castle of Laputa from Gulliver's Travels!!!

  26. Jim in Phoenix

    Watch your back

    At some point David Gerrold and Oliver Crawford wrote a story that became a Star Trek episode called The cloud minders which was broadcast in February of 1969. This means filming began in 1968. So the story written by Gerrold and Crawford has to be at least that old. Is Mr. Dean's work older than the story written by Gerrold and Crawford? If not, he risks being sued for ripping off their idea. Also there's a passage in the Bible that mentions a tree so tall that animals all over the world found shade under it. Now we know Dean's work isn't that old.

    People have been telling stories, singing songs and drawing pictures for all of recorded history For that long or longer, people have heard the stories, seen the pictures and heard the songs. As soon as they heard, read or saw something, they used that as inspiration for their own work. How many people made statues of naked men before Michaelangelo made one of David?

    Hopefully the judge will tell W. Roger Dean in the words of Mrs. Slocombe "Get stuffefd."

    1. Jolyon Smith

      Re: Watch your back

      All these people commenting without understanding the issue and the principles involved. Sheesh.

      The "copyright" is not in the IDEA, but in the visual representation in an artwork. Sure, floating mountains "existed" before Roger Dean painted them, but he isn't suing Hack Cameron for using the IDEA of floaty lumps of rock in general, only for the specific use of his original representation of that idea.

      If Hack Cameron had come up with his own entirely original vision of floating mountains then there would be no case. Arguably, even if floaty mountains had been the ONLY element of similarity in AVATAR that was common with Roger Dean's work, there also would a much harder case to make (two people can have the same idea/vision independently). But when there are multiple points of similarity between two works, there comes a point where legitimate inspiration stops and copyright infringement begins.

      Tickets for the clue train can be purchased from the desk in the lobby...

  27. Jim in Phoenix

    recycled concepts

    Concepts are often recycled.

    How many authors over the centuries have written stories featurng a crime the authorities couldn't solve and a really clever man or woman who figures it out with a minimum of evidence?

    How many stories have been written featuring a copule in love who can't be together because of hatred on the part of their families or communities?

    How many country songs have been written featuring a guy who cheats on his wife, looses her and is so sad he can't forget her no matter how much he drinks? How many feature a woman expressing anger at the woman who stole her husband?

    How many people painted or drew a picture of a woman before Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa? How man after him?

    Almost every artist on Earth who ever drew or painted something involving plant life created a picture of a tree? How many of those trees were tall?

    Over the centuries how many artists have painted pictures of naked women? Someone must file a lawsuit against Hugh Hefner. He ripped off their idea.

    Doctor House is a rip off of Sherlock Holmes. Both have a drug addiction. Both do what they do because the puzzle interests them, not because they want to do good in the world. Both have a B in the addresses of the places where they live. Both had sidekicks that stayed with them despite their oddities. Holmes had Watson. House had Wilson.

    I think I've proved my point that concepts and ideas are rarely new. An artist usually takes an idea he/she has been exposed to, changes it and adds to it.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The idea for the floating mountains?

    'Where did James Cameron get the idea for the floating mountains?

    Was that from a Yes album cover?`

    ''It might have been,'' the director says with a laugh. ''Back in my pot-smoking days''.

    "Roger Dean Album Covers"

  29. TheOtherHobbes


    he should sue Apple for stealing his rounded corners.

    The one impressive thing about Avatar is its abiliity to persuade *everyone* that Cameron stole from them. There must be literally hundreds of claims and suits against it now.

  30. quozl

    I'm James Cameron

    So back in the Digital Equipment Corporation days, when the internet was new, and people assumed there was some sort of central registration of e-mail addresses, I got lots of fan mail, script ideas, and fascinating offers from actresses. This really took off with Titanic. Especially the actresses. Titanic really inspired them.

    Eventually a reporter tried the same search algorithm and found me. When Titanic won awards, I ended up in a Hong Kong newspaper being compared with the genuine article. He was said to be the "big" James Cameron, and I was the "little" James Cameron, much to the amusement of my OpenVMS colleagues who knew my height was what let me store more documentation in my cube.

    Several of the script outlines were surprisingly similar to Asimov or Clarke stories. I mean really similar.

    Looking at it from his perspective though, there's little one can do to verify that ideas sold to you aren't already somebody elses. There's no patent system for graphic art or stories, and the cost of trawling all published art would be prohibitive. It would be easier to keep good records and self-insure for later claims, whether they be legitimate or spurious.

  31. Stilted Banter

    Good grief, Roger Dean

    I'd forgotten how dreadful his stuff was. Thomas Kinkade with dragons. You'd think he would want to keep his head down.

  32. Robin Bradshaw

    I had always assumed the idea for floating islands came from Hạ Long Bay in vietnam (as seen in the james bond film tomorrow never dies)

  33. veeguy

    Hippy era stuff ummm Yea.

    Although I will be dating myself, stuff like the litigant's art was all over 1960's and 70's head shops. Floating sky islands, the "tree of life" stone arches, fantastic landscapes (many in black light popping "day glow" magnificence). Point is, this artist himself is putting out reruns of prior art. I don't see how he can claim sole ownership of already non original works of art.

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