The Walt Disney Company organized 20th Century Studios to house much of their film and television acquisitions from their $53 billion dollar purchase of Fox in 2019. One of the films in 20th Century’s extensive portfolio is the 1987 action blockbuster Predator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Screenwriter brothers Jim and John Thomas –who originally penned the alien vs. Arnold thriller, gifting pop culture with the classic line, “Get to the CHOPPA!” — say that Disney’s right to the Predator franchise expires this week. According to The Hollywood Reporter, lawyers for the Thomas brothers filed suit against The Walt Disney Company looking to take advantage of a legal loophole that permits writers to cancel transfers of their works after a period of roughly 35 years.
A court ruling on the matter could cause major shockwaves throughout the entertainment industry, with many iconic films and franchises from the 1980s – like Beetlejuice (1988), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), and Terminator (1984) – potentially being subject to this termination of transfers provision.
The success of the original Predator (1987) led to three sequels and the spinoff movie series, Alien vs. Predator. The popularity of the franchise has resulted in worldwide box office and digital/home video sales totaling nearly a billion dollars.
Reportedly, Disney has a Predator project in early development with 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) Director Dan Trachtenberg attached. If a court finds that the suit brought against Disney has merit, future Predator projects at 20th Century Studios could face serious impediment or outright cancellation. According to Jim and John Thomas, the termination date for their screenplay, originally titled “Hunters,” is Saturday, April 17th.
Disney‘s lawyers wasted no time in responding to the Thomas Brothers lawsuit with a lawsuit of their own. In short, Disney’s 20th Century Studios is suing Jim and John Thomas, asserting that they are well within their legal rights to retain all copyright claims to Predator. The Disney company argues that Jim and John Thomas failed to provide proper notice of termination as prescribed by the copyright termination law the Thomas Brothers are seeking to exploit.
Inside The Magic will continue to update this developing situation as it unfolds.
Disney has very recently been in the news for copyright claims against the Muppets franchise. Earlier this month, a writer of the original Muppet Babies series that aired from 1984-1991, Jeffrey Scott lost a copyright suit he brought against Disney. Scott accused Disney of “misappropriation” of his work when it launched a reboot of the series for Disney Channel and Disney Junior in 2018. Disney’s lawyers were able to shoot down Scott’s claim on a legal technicality. Disney claimed that Scott had no legal claim to Muppet Babies, as all characters enjoyed legal copyright protection and were intellectual property of Disney’s The Jim Henson Company.
This could just be the tip of the iceberg for high profile copyright legal wrangling in the years ahead. On January 1, 2024 the copyright for Steamboat Willie will expire. The 1928 cartoon famously introduced the world to Mickey Mouse. It follows that as the Steamboat Willie copyright enters public domain, so too does Disney’s claim to their global icon and corporate mascot, Mickey Mouse.
Disney owns copyrights on later iterations of Mickey Mouse, and all trademarks. But with many famous characters and works that originated in the 1920s and 30s – like Batman, Superman, and Disney’s first feature film Snow White – we’ll continue to see copyright law challenged in ways courts haven’t tested in modern times.
What do you think? Should famous works and characters be allowed to become public domain?