‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Lawsuit: You Can’t Copyright Ideas, but Is There a Sequel Without That Article?

On Monday, Paramount Pictures celebrated its $357 million global box-office performance for “Top Gun: Maverick” — and faced a federal copyright lawsuit from the heirs of the late Ehud Yonay, author of the 1983 magazine story that inspired the original “Top Gun.”

Nearly four decades ago, Paramount secured rights to “Top Guns,” an article published in the May 1983 issue of the now-folded California magazine; Yonay received a writing credit for the article on the original 1986 film, with a screenplay by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.

In 2018, Yonay’s heirs filed for what’s known as termination rights. So now they argue it is them — not Paramount — who currently owns the underlying rights to make any movies based on “Top Guns.” They claim Paramount didn’t ask for permission — or pay them to make “Maverick.”

The plaintiffs are Ehud’s window Shosh and his son Yuval. On June 6, they asked a Los Angeles judge to immediately order Paramount to stop distribution of “Maverick.” They’re also asking that the court rule that the 2022 film is derivative of the magazine article and therefore covered under their copyright ownership, that Paramount did not have the rights to make and distribute the sequel, and that they be awarded unspecified monetary damages.

Representing the Yonays is copyright attorney Marc Toberoff, who recently filed termination notices on behalf of the heirs of five Marvel comic-book authors including Stan Lee. Disney sued in response, seeking to block the heirs from reclaiming their copyrights and claiming a cut of Marvel profits.

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While some deals give studios film rights to stories in perpetuity, there is a caveat: After a set number of years, copyright holders of a work may recover copyright through a termination notice. The Yonays filed a termination notice in 2018, several months before “Maverick” began production. Production on “Top Gun: Maverick” wrapped in June 2019 and was originally scheduled to open in June 2020. Covid delayed its release twice — first to July 2021, and finally to May 27, 2022.

The Yonays allege that copyright for “Top Guns” reverted to them on January 24, 2020. They allege that “Maverick” was completed in May 2021, which means Paramount needed to again license the rights to “Top Guns” in order to make anything derivative of it. Their argument, which Paramount denies, is that without the article, “Top Gun” or “Top Gun: Maverick” would not exist.

“The article is not the screenplay, and Paramount can argue that the article was basically just a story idea and nothing more. Ideas are not copyrightable,” entertainment attorney Mark Litwak told IndieWire after reviewing the case. “It’s not always clear when an idea is embellished enough, when it becomes more than an idea, it becomes a work of authorship. It’s not a clear line.

“It may be difficult to say this new sequel move has nothing to do with the original article. That may be a hard sell,” he continued.

Yonay’s article took readers into the Navy Fighter Weapons School in San Diego, aka Top Gun, with a vivid narrative approach that captured the high-octane cockpit environment and camaraderie among pilots with nicknames like “Possum” and “Yogi.”

“Maverick” could become the highest-grossing film of 2022, with VOD rentals and Paramount+ streaming to follow. Of course, there’s potential for another sequel (and another, and another).

“The threat of the plaintiffs’ actually getting an injunction and stopping distribution of this film, or getting damages under copyright law, even if it’s only a 10-percent chance, the consequences are pretty dramatic,” Litwak said. “My guess is the case will settle.”

Reached for comment, a Paramount representative sent the following to IndieWire: “These claims are without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously.”

And Toberoff offered this: “Paramount’s statement reminds me of Rear Admiral Chester ‘Hammer’ Cain: ‘The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed for extinction.’ 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.'”