Who actually owns the IP rights to Avatar & Alita Battle Angel?

Who is in the Rights?

Movie rights in Hollywood are not always clear-cut from the perspective of an outside observer. When considering the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars, it is immediately obvious who owns those IPs. Disney bought Star Wars from George Lucas in 2012, which in turn led to the decanonization of the Extended Universe as the franchise was reworked by its new owners. So it is quite obvious who owns that IP. The same is true with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Disney can go in whatever direction they want with the respective stories & characters of said IPs. Yet when it comes to properties in which James Cameron is involved, especially Avatar and Alita Battle Angel, most media outlets report, and readers believe with the same conviction that these IPs are owned by Disney. In reality, this assertion is very likely to be far from the truth. 

It is the production company Lightstorm Entertainment that holds all the production rights to IPs like Avatar, Alita Battle Angel, Terminator, True Lies, which is in turn owned by James Cameron. ‘Production rights’ in this context refers to who has creative control. The legal body that can assert when, how, and in what volume a story, characters, merchandise, advertisement material, artwork etc. is to be created or used by a third party including the right to make money with said IP. In the case of Avatar it is Lightstorm Entertainment that needs to grant those rights to an entity like Disney. 

Lightstorm Entertainment (LE) was founded in 1990 by James Cameron and Lawrence Kasanoff. Most movies of LE have been distributed by 20th Century Fox. By ‘distribution’ it is meant that an entity possesses the (exclusive) rights to use a property via their own distribution channels, for example streaming with the intention to make profit. This happens in accordance with a contract that is drawn up with the legal owner of the IP in case the owner is a third party and not the company itself. LE is the third party in the case of Avatar.

But how can we know that it is Lightstorm Entertainment and not Disney who is in full charge of properties like Alita Battle Angel or Avatar? There are many indicators, some clear and others vague, which reinforce that this is indeed the situation. They will be covered in the following paragraphs. One does not simply rely on a fan-edited Wikipedia page to be the single source of truth!

With the 2019 movie Alita Battle Angel, for instance, the options to adapt the Manga GUNNM to a live action movie were bought by James Cameron in the year 2000 from Yukito Kishiro (the IP’s creator) for the price of 1 million Japanese Yen. This was revealed by the creator of the manga Yukito Kishiro during the premiere of Alita: Battle Angel in China. Quote YT: Link In the video he said that Cameron obtained the rights for 100 million US-Dollars which was a mistake. In a later email he corrected the number to 1 million Japanese Yen. Yukito is quite nervous when interviewed, and he mixed up his currencies when on the spot.

The social media sites for both Avatar and Alita Battle Angel exist on seperate accounts, and basically all advertisement is running from these sites while the official Disney accounts are mostly hands off. While they feature a lot of entertainment from their Star Wars and Marvel IPs, they don’t advertise Avatar. Even on the last Disney Investor Day on the 10th of December 2020. Avatar wasn’t mentioned. Small images of the Avatar movie poster were placed among other content, but there were no trailers and no plans forthcoming.

Screengrabs like the one above were the only hints that Avatar was in evidence. Hint: find the Avatar movie poster right below the Logo.

A few months prior at the end of October, Alita Battle Angel was re-released for US theaters. During that time the social media accounts that advertised the rerelease were the Alita Battle Angel account, James Cameron, Jon Landau, Robert Rodriguez and 20th Century. The obvious distinction between Lightstorm IPs and those of Disney can be clearly seen. It was James Cameron who led the charge:

Once more no engagement of Disney in this Cameron property. For many this might appear as a lack of interest from the side of Disney to promote that rerelease. But why hurt their own income by not throwing their support behind it? Where they told not to?

One of the biggest indicators of James Cameron owning the intellectual IP of his movies comes from a completely different source. The recurring theme of lawsuits that Lightstorm Entertainment has faced over the years by numerous plaintiffs. It isn’t the topic of this article to discuss if these lawsuits have merit, yet as of the date of publication, all of these cases have been won by James Cameron.

“Ryder’s legal claim wasn’t for copyright infringement, but rather that Cameron and Lightstorm had breached an implied contract to compensate Ryder for his ideas and also committed fraud and deceit. Nevertheless, the plaintiff still needed to show that Avatar was similar enough to K.R.Z. and that Cameron hadn’t independently created it prior to Ryder’s pitch. That was a high bar that Ryder has failed to clear.” – The Hollywood Reporter – OCTOBER 03, 2013

Here another Lawsuit that Cameron faced by Roger Dean, an artist with works showing some similarities between his designs and the floating isles of Pandora. The Brag Media Jul 02, 2013

This lawsuit was brought down as well. What is interesting to note here is that all these lawsuits were directed at Cameron and Lightstorm itself and not to 20th Century Fox at that time. If Fox had owned the rights to the IPs, the lawsuits would logically have needed to be levelled at Fox and not James Cameron / LE. If an individual artist creates any sort of art, the intellectual property stands with the person who created the art, as long as it is the sole creation of said person.

If an artist is in a contract with a company who owns a specific IP and the artist is commissioned to create something with regards to the IP, the ownership of that new art piece is with the IP rights holder and not with the artist who drew it. Even if that art is completely new, usually companies settle contracts that regulate the transfer of the rights from the artist to the company.

edit: Just short after publishing another big piece of evidence came in. The production designer Dylan Cole who worked on Alita: Battle Angel got asked by the user ST_Challenger on Twitter by whom he was contracted. Here is his answer:

Bild

This shows exactly where we at. Lightstorm Entertainment is the one owning the production rights. In Dylans case all rights to his artworks got transferred to LE.

Bild
Art by Dylan Cole / Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

End of edit.

In the case of 20th Century Fox, it would mean everything that has been created for Avatar would have been owned by them. Thus every responsibility for that said art would have been with them as well. In case of any plagiarism claims, lawsuits would need to be directed to 20th Century Fox and not to a director who took the order from them. In return, if the claims are proven to be true the company could go and ask for reparations from said artist. Because the artist did hurt his employer by acting that way.

For example, in 2009 a Norwegian Lamp manufacturer called Luxo sued the animation Studio Pixar and the parent company Walt Disney for copyright infringement. The claim was that Disney used a design of theirs without consent. When Disney started to sell physical replicas of that design, Luxo decided that it had enough and sued. LA-Times – SEP. 7, 2009

A few years later Victor Whitmill sued Warner Bros because of a tribal Tattoo design that was featured on the face of Stu (Ed Helms) in the movie “The Hangover Part 2”. The artist designed the tattoo specifically for Mike Tyson and claimed that Warner Bros. had no right to use that motif in their movie. Warner Bros managed to settle the dispute out of court without divulging details of the settlement. The Hollywood Reporter – JUNE 20, 2011

In both these cases, the lawsuits were directed at the companies who were the current owners of the copyright (of the movie) and not levelled against a specific artist or director who came up with the idea to use a design that was already protected. Coming back to James Cameron, this is a clear indication that he, with his studio Lightstorm Entertainment, must be in charge of the Avatar IP. The same can also be said of their other properties such as Terminator, True Lies, and Alita Battle Angel. As the former 20th Century Fox only owned the distribution rights to these movies, it is these rights that got inherited by Disney during the acquisition of Fox. 

So to be clear, Disney needs to approach James Cameron to request permission to use any of the content and materials from his properties. No matter if it is showing the movies on their services (distribution rights) or the use of ad promo material, etc. It is not just the Avatar theme-park in Disneyland that needs a licensing-agreement with Lightstorm Entertainment.

“Disney reached a long-term, exclusive licensing agreement with “Avatar” director James Cameron and his producing partner Jon Landau, as well as the film’s financier and distributor, 20th Century Fox, to develop theme park rides and attractions based on the 2009 hit and its two planned sequels.” 

“Under terms of the agreement, Fox”(Distributor)” and Cameron”(IP owner)” will receive a licensing fee and a percentage of merchandise sales. Disney will not, however, share a portion of ticket proceeds.”

LA-Times Sep 21, 2011

From this article, it is clear that Cameron is the owner of the property and Disney have forged an agreement to use the IP contents exclusively. Since the acquisition of Fox in 2019, the portion that Disney should now receive will have increased significantly with Fox’s portion added to Disney’s own.

James Cameron made a fortune of $350 million on Avatar because of his percentage stake in the movie in which he contributed as a helmer, writer and producer. This is the biggest financial haul ever for a movie director.

His net worth is estimated to be $700 million. Due to his reign with Lightstorm over properties like Avatar, Alita and other projects Cameron should be a force to be reckoned with in any negotiations with studios. Even Disney should have a tough time to have it’s way.

“James Cameron net worth: James Cameron is a Canadian-born director who has a net worth of $700 million. James Cameron is the creative force behind films such as The Terminator, Aliens, Rambo II, The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies, Titanic and Avatar. In the United States alone, his movies have earned more than $1.9 billion. Worldwide his movies have earned $6.3 billion.”

Celebrity Net Worth

List of movies/IPs under Lightstorm Entertainment ownership.

image by wikipedia

Hopefully this should clear up a lot of confusion. So the fact Avatar has once again taken the box-office crown as the highest grossing movie of all time (by Weekend of March 13, 2021) is actually a win for James Cameron (the IP rights holder)  and not Disney (the distribution rights holder).

One thought on “Who actually owns the IP rights to Avatar & Alita Battle Angel?

  1. You’re not covering distribution rights, unless I missed it.
    You touched on it, but didn’t cover it.
    That’s what you’re missing.
    Because Fox owned the distribution rights. Now Disney owns the distribution rights.
    You’re right that Cameron owns production rights, but not the right to distribution.
    So, what does that mean?
    Cameron can go to HBOmax or Netflix to make another Alita movie, but it can’t be the same version Disney owns the right to distribution for.
    So a reboot and totally different version of Alita might be possible.
    However, if it’s a complete reboot, there’s still the legal issue of Disney owning the rights to distribution for that IP.
    All the marketing, promotional tie ins, product made to sell, distribution to theaters, putting it on physical media, distribution to streaming services.
    Also, a portion of Alita was funded by Fox in exchange for rights to distribution.
    You’re on to a good lead here, but you need to consider those aspects to rights concerning production and distribution.

    Like

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