Once again Hollywood hosts an explosion of creative talent that stretches the bounds of imagination in its tireless quest for the perfect, lucrative lawsuit.
Because Avatar played such merry music on the cash register, the favourite legal target is James Cameron. Surely Harlan Ellison couldn't resist after successfully suing for use of his story ideas in Terminator? Instead, he irrepressibly went after the makers of In Time – apparently on the basis of reviews explaining that the plot has people's allotted time monitored and cut short by cruelly bureaucratic Timekeepers, as in Logan's Run. Sorry, I'll read that again ... as in Ellison's even older "'Repent, Harlequin!' said the Ticktockman".
The legal crunch point came when our author actually saw the film for himself, said something not a million light-years from "Oops," and cancelled the lawsuit as suddenly as he'd launched it.
Meanwhile, to greedy eyes Avatar seems a soft target because it's reminiscent of so much past SF. Poul Anderson's 1957 story "Call Me Joe" is a plausible influence, featuring a paraplegic whose personality is projected into a hunky artificial body to explore Jupiter, which he enjoys so much that he goes native. But wait – Anderson's story surely owes something to Clifford Simak's 1944 "Desertion", where explorers transformed into natives of Jupiter find their new bodies and senses so wonderful that they can't face being changed back to mere men.
Again, Cameron's theme of brutal colonial oppressors versus tree-hugging natives recalls many other works including Ursula Le Guin's "The Word for World is Forest". Something like Avatar's Tree of Souls was an alien communications nexus in James Blish's A Case of Conscience. Unobtainium, variously spelt, is a joky reference in several SF tales (see my SFX 194 column) and features in the film The Core. Floating mountains sail the sky in Philip José Farmer's The Lavalite World and – of course – Roger Dean's iconic artwork. Dean himself complained that Avatar "had the look and feel of my work for sure. [...] It was like they had access to my DNA." Or maybe they had access to old Yes albums.
As the saying goes: steal from one source and it's plagiarism, but borrow little bits from all over and that's research. Avatar is full of basic SF mulch, traditional narrative elements (the writing-workshop term for clichés) that have percolated through dozens of stories. You can't copyright general ideas.
So now we're seeing a new approach by optimists seeking that legendary pot of gold at the lawsuit's end: James Cameron fiendishly stole their unpublished story which is exactly like the movie!
Allegedly he pinched Avatar from two screenplays by a chap called Bryant Moore, allegedly submitted to Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment in 1994 and 2003. In December 2012 Moore sued Cameron and 20th Century Fox, asking $2.5 billion damages since "Cameron stole his idea for the movie...."
He's not alone. SF author Eric Ryder claims he worked for two years with Cameron on a film based on his own "KRZ 2068", with "striking similarities" to Avatar. He's suing too. So is Gerald Morawski, who just knows that Avatar is modelled on his pitch to Cameron for the unfilmed Guardians of Eden.
The great mystery is how, uninfluenced by such high concepts as heaps of money, three different people came up with the same scenario so that cunning devil James Cameron could pinch it from all of them.
David Langford likes the suit against Cowboys and Aliens by someone who used the theme in 1994. Little does he know that Howard Waldrop did it in 1987, perhaps homaging the 1950s magazine Space Western Comics....