The heirs of the author of a magazine article that served as the basis for Top Gun have sued Paramount Pictures, claiming the studio went ahead with the new sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, despite knowingly no longer owning the copyright.
As noted in the lawsuit (which was shared by Variety), the original 1986 Top Gun was based on Ehud Yonay’s 1983 story for California magazine, entitled “Top Guns.” Paramount secured the exclusive movie rights to the story after it was published, and Yonay received a “based on” credit as well.
In 2018, Yonay’s children, Shosh and Yuval, retrieved the copyright to their father’s original story under Section 203 of the U.S. Copyright Act, which allows authors to get back the rights to their work after 35 years. Shosh and Yuval’s suit claims they “properly availed themselves” of this termination right, and the copyright to the “Top Guns” article reverted back to them on Jan. 24, 2020.
Nevertheless, the suit states, “Paramount deliberately ignored this, thumbing its nose at the statute. This case arises out of Paramount’s consciousness failure to re-acquire the requisite film and ancillary rights to the Yonays’ copyrighted Story prior to the completion and release of their derivative 2022 sequel.”
In response to the lawsuit, Paramount issued the statement, “These claims are without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously.”
Marc Toberoff, one of the lawyers representing the Yonays, shared a statement with Rolling Stone, in which he referenced characters and quotes from Top Gun. “Paramount’s statement reminds me of Read Admiral Chester ‘Hammer’ Cain: ‘The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed for extinction,'” Toberoff said. “To which Maverick replies: ‘Maybe so, sir. But not today.’ Much as Paramount wants to pretend otherwise, they made a sequel to Top Gun after they lost their copyright. As Maverick would say: ‘It’s time to buzz the tower.'”
(The other attorney representing the Yonays is Alex Kozinski, a former federal judge who retired from the bench in 2017 after numerous female law clerks accused him of sexual misconduct. Kozinski apologized and said his former clerks may have misunderstood his “broad sense of humor” and “candid way of speaking.”)
In the new lawsuit, Toberoff and Kozinski argue that it “naturally follows” that Top Gun: Maverick is “derived from Ehud Yonay’s story” considering the original film’s screenwriters — Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. — received a writing credit on the sequel. They also claim that Maverick, like the original film, “reveals key elements that are substantially similar” to those in Yonay’s original magazine article.
While Top Gun: Maverick went into production in May 2018, the lawsuit claims that it was not completed until May 2021, over a year after the Yonays retrieved the copyright. As such, the lawsuit states that Top Gun: Maverick “does not qualify for the ‘prior derivative works exception,’” and that Paramount went ahead with the film without securing a new license.
The lawsuit additionally claims that Paramount “was placed on clear notice of these issues” when the Yonays served the studio with their copyright termination notice in 2018, and again in May 2022 when they sent a cease-and-desist letter regarding the movie. Per the suit, Paramount argued the sequel was “sufficiently completed” by Jan. 24, 2020 (the date the copyright reversal went into effect), a claim the Yonays clearly dispute.
The Yonays are seeking damages, as well as an injunction that would stop Paramount from distributing the blockbuster, which has reportedly grossed nearly $300 million in the U.S. so far.
This story was updated 6/6/22 at 10:33 p.m. ET with a statement from Marc Toberoff