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James Cameron Sued for Stealing 'Titanic' Plot

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

While some people only felt robbed of the price of admission and 3 hours and 14 minutes of their life after watching the 1997 film Titanic, a Florida man recently filed a lawsuit claiming James Cameron stole his family's story for the film. Stephen Cummings is seeking $300 million as well as a 1 percent ongoing royalty as a result of the alleged theft.

According to sources, Cummings is claiming that the story of Jack Dawson and Rose Bukater mirrors the story of his two relatives, a husband and wife couple aboard the Titanic. When the real ship sank, only the wife escaped. The actual tale, which Cummings was known to tell to friends, has other similarities to the one told in the movie.

What Took So Long to File Suit?

Perhaps the most curious question about this recent case is: What took so long? Typically, copyright infringement cases only have a 3 year statute of limitation. This means that an aggrieved person must file their lawsuit within 3 years after the infringing work is released, or, in rare situations, 3 years after the person who holds the rights should reasonably be aware of the infringement.

Additionally, a person's rights to publicity are separate from copyright law and are often referred to as life story rights. These rights are governed by state laws, and generally have a statute of limitations ranging from 1 to 3 years from the date of violation.

While it may seem that Cummings is over 6,000 days late, if the film was re-mastered, re-released, or otherwise altered and republished, that may be sufficient to trigger a new violation.

Life Story Rights

When it comes to another person's life story, authors, filmmakers and other artists, need to tread carefully. While copyright protections extend to a person's creative works, a person's life is protected by the right to publicity and privacy. A person has a right to keep their private life private. Unless they are a public figure, or have thrust their private life into the public eye, each individual owns the rights to profit off their own private life or publicity.

However, these rights are controlled by state law, and don't exist in every state. In states like California and New York, these laws are robust and strong due to the bulk of the entertainment industry operating in those locations traditionally. While in other states, these rights may be non-existent. However, when a work is published, so long as it is available in a state that protects a person's publicity rights, an out of state resident could potentially avail themselves of that state's laws by filing their case in that particular state.

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