The unmitigated box office success of Top Gun: Maverick is one of the best stories of the year. The movie has crossed $300 million domestically and has driven people back to the theaters. Insiders are talking about whether or not it could even receive Oscar nominations.

But behind closed doors, a legal case is mounting. One that is actually very interesting. You see, the first Top Gun was based on a 1983 magazine article by the late Ehud Yonay. The rights were secured to make the movie. But after a 30-plus-year hiatus between the first movie and its sequel, Yonay’s heirs filed for termination rights. This happened just before Maverick's production. So Yonay’s heirs claim Top Gun: Maverick was made without securing the rights to the story that inspired it. 

Did you follow all that? It's a little complicated, and lawyers are trying to sort out exactly what it means right now. 

Movies and IP

Let's lay out some legal jargon now. First, the biggest thing you have to understand is that an idea is not copyrightable, meaning no one owns, for example, the idea of a movie about fighter pilots. But someone can own an article about a flight school for the nation's top pilots, which is intellectual property. That article and the specific movie made after will then be intertwined. 

In 1983, Yonay wrote an article called “Top Guns,” in California magazine. That article was bought by Paramount and turned into the movie Top Gun. Yonay even received a writing credit for the article on the original film, with a screenplay by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.

Yonay has since passed, but his heirs are suing Paramount, which allegedly lost the rights on the article and then proceeded to make a sequel to the movie. They claim that since the rights were terminated before Maverick shot, they owned the sequel rights to the movie, not Paramount. And since no one paid them to make this movie, they're suing. 

This is a sticky situation with no clear answer. The best guess is that this case will settle out of court, but it is still a complicated affair. Entertainment lawyers looking at the case can see both sides. The main question is if the sequel is based on the first movie, does it owe anything to the article? Sure, the first movie can pull from the article, but the sequel just takes the ideas for the story (which are not copyrightable) and updates them into a story that's completely different, outside of some character crossover. 

We'll keep you updated as answers come. Let us know your thoughts in the comments. And we'd love to hear from some lawyers on this!