According to the US Copyright Office, copyright infringement occurs when copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.
Under copyright law, you cannot copyright an idea, but you can copyright the embodiment of the idea. For example, star-crossed lovers who come from warring families but manage to find a way to be together nonetheless is not protectible, while setting those two characters in 1950s New York City, incorporating music, and having the warring factions be rival gangs is more likely a defensible story in a copyright infringement case.
In the case of Avatar, a former Cameron employee alleges the film Avatar illegally copies his script for K.R.Z. 2068. Mr. Cameron asserts he wrote Avatar five years before K.R.Z. 2068, and independent creation is a solid copyright defense, regardless of any similarities the two films may share.
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