questionmarkYou knowing a lot about screenwriting and the law, I’ve got a question about ethics and rights; When is a screenplay an ‘homage’, as opposed to an illegal rip-off/unauthorized remake?

Let’s take Seven Samurai for instance. It was remade officially and legally as Magnificent Seven, but then there have been other versions of the story made since then — most notably Battle Beyond The Stars and, to an extent, A Bug’s Life. I might be mistaken, but I’m almost certain these films didn’t have remake rights. How was this done?

Is it all a matter of “shut your mouth about the source and you’ll get away with it”? For instance; I’ve noticed that despite it being blatantly obvious; Tarantino has never been quoted as saying City On Fire was an inspiration for Reservoir Dogs. However, James Cameron came right out and said that some short works by Harlan Ellison were the inspiration for The Terminator — and then he got sued.

Is it a case of altering the situations, names and characters to the point where they are dissimilar enough to pass as a new work?

Or do you consider a pre-told story an ‘archetype’ from the point it enters the public arena? I could see that being the case for Seven Samurai — the story has been re-told so many times that the very core of the story (seven warriors defending a village from bandits) has now become an archetype. Would you agree?

Let’s put the theory in practice with a hypothetical: I write a script about a bank that hires seven police officers to guard them from a large-scale robbery they have heard rumored will take place (no, that’s not a script I’m working on…feel free to steal that idea if you want, people).

Would it really come down to the difference of me saying “I thought it was a great story and wanted to pay homage to the master; Kurosawa” — as opposed to “I thought it was a great story, so I blatantly stole it.”?

Even if you’re not sure about the legal side of things, what would be your opinion on a writer working on an homage piece?

–Pete

answer iconThe great thing about your question is that it already did all the hard work for me. Observe and learn, dear readers: see the wonder of the self-answering question.

Basically, I think you’re right on all counts. An “idea” is essentially unprotectable, so seven guys defending a village can be done any number of times without owing a dime (or a tip of the hat) to Mr. Kurosawa. What is protectable is the execution: the plot, the characters and all of the details. The Magnificent Seven is a remake in that it took all of these elements fairly directly. The others are appropriating only the basic idea, or small details, and are thus labelled “homage.”

Regarding your theoretical bank-heist movie: yes, I think you’d be in the clear, but only to the degree you kept the characters and specific plot points far clear of Kurosawa’s film. And when you’re doing interviews, shut up about your influences.