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Mockbuster movies: when is inspiration really imitation?

Posted by Red Points on Wednesday, Jun 28, 2017

Mockbuster movies like Snakes on a Train surely more-than-tread the line between inspiration and imitation, so how is it they can continue to exist?

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Have you seen Atlantic Rim? What about Jurassic Shark? Transmorphers? It may surprise you to know that these films, nicknamed ‘mockbusters’, enjoy profitable DVD sales and are frequently streamed on media subscription services. But considering their similarity to major Hollywood movies, how is it that they can continue to dominate bargain shelves in supermarkets and the Netflix ‘titles related to’ section?

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Well, the vast majority of mockbusters are not breaching current copyright law. It’s here that one has to understand a distinction between knockoffs and actual trademark or copyright infringements. If a film takes loose inspiration from the general concept behind an upcoming blockbuster without sharing specific details with the film, it is unlikely to infringe on copyright. This concept has even caused ‘twin movies’ by major studios capitalising on the same theme, like Antz and A Bug’s Life which were released in the same year. The phenomenon has been attributed to industry espionage but could simply be caused by another studio piggybacking onto a general concept of an upcoming movie. This is how many mockbuster companies continue to operate despite threats from major Hollywood studios. The Asylum, a US film company and distributor behind such greats as Snakes on a Train, The Da Vinci Treasure and Pirates of a Treasure Island, employs an attorney to ensure of legality in such releases.

Additionally, films like many of Disney’s that are based around fairy tales already in the public domain have no claim to copyright infringement. This is the basis behind film companies Video Brinquedo and GoodTimes Entertainment, that have physically released titles like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin simultaneous with Disney theatrical releases.

And much of the time, Hollywood studios ignore mockbusters. Most are not in direct competition with their blockbuster counterparts, because they are low-budget and released direct-to-DVD, intended for bargain-hunters and cult followers. However, they do freeride off the back of Hollywood advertising budgets, and as content services like Netflix drive competition with availability possibly awakening a new mockbuster audience, mockbusters may become more threatened by lawsuits.

But on what grounds can film companies sue a movie that doesn’t *technically* share any details or a name, or in other words, at what point does inspiration become imitation? Well, in some cases mockbusters may infringe on trademarks. The Asylum’s The Age of the Hobbits was renamed after a lawsuit against by Warner Bros. who claimed that the word ‘hobbit’ was a trademark of SZC’s Tolkien Enterprises. The Asylum cited plot differences and argued that the ‘hobbits’ in their film were based on a prehistoric group whom the term had been applied to in a scientific study, but the group ultimately lost the case and were forced to rename the movie.

In other cases, consumers believe that they are purchasing the actual Hollywood movie, giving a production company grounds that the mockbuster film company is producing with intent to deceive consumers. In 2012 UK company Brightspark was ordered to destroy all copies of four of its films, including titles ‘Braver’ and ‘Tangled Up’, after Disney took the company to court on the grounds that its releases were confusing customers by bearing similarity to Disney titles and movie artwork.

Indeed, mockbusters are by their very definition a form of IP law circumvention, but until this point have been relatively ignored by major film companies and distributors. However, as movie piracy evolves to find more workarounds to laws, legal streaming sites like Netflix see enormous growth and major entertainment companies band together to fight piracy, it’s clear that the landscape of digital piracy is at a turning point, and a time may come where mockbuster movies make a serious dent in the industry. Legal cases are treading new ground, copyright laws are evolving and the point where inspiration meets imitation is becoming clearer than ever before as companies look to apply comprehensive protection strategies to their copyright and trademarks. Film companies and IP owners would be wise to take steps toward awareness of their rights regarding IP protection, their own level of threat and the future of digital piracy as it becomes exposed to a new generation.

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