The concept of the film ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ isn’t high-art by any means. In fact, the film’s title is one of those rare instances (like ‘Snakes on a Plane’) in which what it says is exactly what you get. There are cowboys. There are aliens. And they fight. That’s it. But can you copyright such an idea?
Comic book writer Steven Busti claims that you can. Busti is backing up his claims by suing the producers of the 2011 film. Busti’s claim is that the film’s creators stole his idea. To his defense, Busti did write a comic called ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ in 1994. It was printed as part of an anthology series titled ‘Bizarre Fantasy’ and published by Flashback Comics. Busti’s tale featured aliens coming to earth in the Old West. But, beyond that, the story has virtually nothing in common with the film.
In fact, the film is based on yet another comic altogether. The film’s producer Scott Mitchell Rosenberg created an unrelated comic titled ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ in 2006. Rosenberg’s creation was published as a graphic novel, written by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, illustrated by Dennis Calero and Luciano Lima, and published under the Platinum Studios imprint. Rosenberg’s comic tale featured the characters that were used for the film version, including Daniel Craig’s character of Jake Lonergan (who was called Zeke Johnson in the comic).
While it’s clear that Busti’s tale came first chronologically, the question is going to be, since the film is based on Rosenberg’s comic, whether or not Busti can copyright the idea of mixing the two genres of western and science fiction. I’m going to predict that the case will get thrown out since, by Busti’s logic, a generic idea can by copyrighted. That would mean that Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman, can sue every superhero comic that’s been created since, as they’re almost all about people in tights with powers.
What do you think? Can an idea like ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ be copyrighted? Or can only the individual tales be legally protected? Comment below and share your thoughts.