This browser is not actively supported anymore. For the best passle experience, we strongly recommend you upgrade your browser.
| 5 minutes read

Road House: Another 80’s Remake, Another Copyright Brawl

Hollywood is doubling-down on risk-averse strategies. While some criticize the trend of pumping out innumerable sequels to popular franchises (e.g., Mission Impossible, Fast and Furious) and rebooting old favorites (e.g., Ghostbusters, Top Gun, Indiana Jones), these strategies are at least offering regular legal interest. Lately, it seems like 1980’s reboots and copyright claims go together almost as well as bright neon colors and hairspray. The latest copyright fight involves a remake of the 1989 classic Road House, which so far has seen punches landed by litigants on both sides, and an outcome that is yet to be decided.

Copyright Termination Rights Enter the Ring

About the same time the Central District of California was clearing the Top Gun case off its desk—which we discussed in a previous article (hyperlink)—another came through its doors. In February, R. Lance Hill, the author of the screenplay for the 1989 film Road House, filed a copyright infringement complaint against MGM and Amazon Studios for their 2024 remake released via Amazon Prime Video, also entitled Road House

The common thread between the Top Gun case and the Road House case is section 203(a) of Copyright Act, which allows authors of original works to terminate the grant of a copyright after 35 years. The termination rights expressly provided in the Copyright Act permit authors to extricate themselves from earlier IP assignments and negotiate a more lucrative deal now that the value of their work is more apparent. As Hollywood continues to churn out sequels, reboots, and remakes, we can expect to continue seeing the original authors attempt to use this section of the Copyright Act to their benefit.

Opening Strike: Hill’s Copyright Infringement Claim

In July 1986, Hill wrote an original screenplay entitled “Roadhouse.” United Artists Pictures purchased the rights to that screenplay in September 1986, and released Road House in 1989, starring Patrick Swayze as James Dalton, a tough protagonist who provides security for a roadside bar in Jasper, Missouri, and is entrusted with protecting the bar and its patrons from a corrupt businessman. In the movie, Dalton is haunted by memories of a man he killed in self-defense many years prior, he falls in love with a doctor he meets while seeking treatment for his injuries in a fight, and he ultimately prevails in bringing peace to the town. The film received poor reviews, but developed something of a cult following on cable television and is now considered one of the most “enjoyably bad movies ever made.” 

There were rumors of a remake in 2015, but the project stalled until 2021 when it was reported that MGM had begun discussing the idea with Jake Gyllenhaal. Around that same time, Hill served United Artists and MGM with a statutory notice of termination under the Copyright Act, seemingly terminating the grant of rights he made to United Artists 35 years prior in 1986.

In March 2024, MGM and Amazon Studios released the 2024 Road House, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, in a true remake of the original with a remarkably similar plot and merely superficial differences. The character’s name is now Elwood Dalton, instead of James Dalton; the bar is located in the Florida Keys instead of Missouri; and Dalton is haunted by memories of killing an opponent in a UFC fight rather than a bar fight. However, the plot remains unchanged with Dalton working as a bouncer, trying to stop a corrupt businessman, and becoming romantically involved with a doctor he meets at the hospital.

Just days before the 2024 Road House was released, Hill filed a complaint in federal court, alleging copyright infringement claims on the basis that he terminated the original grant of rights to his screenplay. Given the substantial similarity in the plots of the two movies, one may think this would be an easy win for the plaintiff, but you should never judge a movie by its trailer.

Counter Strike: MGM’s Work for Hire Defense

Just weeks ago, MGM and the other defendants filed their answer. In it, they do not spill much ink arguing that the movies are not similar enough to give rise to an infringement claim. Rather, they argue that Hill cannot terminate the grant of rights he made to United Artists because the screenplay was created as a “work for hire,” which is expressly exempt from termination rights under the Copyright Act.

While section 203(a) of the Copyright Act clearly provides an author with the ability to terminate the original assignment of rights, it just as clearly provides that termination rights do not extend to works made for hire. A work for hire is a creative work whose ownership belongs to the third party who commissioned that work. American copyright law has long recognized that a work created by an employee as part of his/her employment belongs to the employer, who is viewed as the author and copyright holder. Works for hire also include works created by independent contractors, but only “if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.”

In this case, MGM argues that Hill’s 1986 screenplay was a work for hire, which was created by Hill as an employee of Lady Amos Literary Works, Ltd. (“Lady Amos”), and as such is not eligible for termination. In support of this defense, MGM claims that the original assignment of rights in 1986 was between Lady Amos and MGM, with Hill representing and warranting that the screenplay was a work for hire owned by Lady Amos. MGM’s answer also included photos of checks made to Lady Amos—not Hill—for the purchase of the screenplay.

Attempted Escape: Hill’s Alter Ego Claim

For his part, Hill claims that he was not an employee of Lady Amos but that Lady Amos was his “wholly owned loan-out entity” and his “alter ego.” Though he cannot deny what is written in the original contract, Hill claims the boilerplate form used by movie studios cannot convert his screenplay into a work for hire, and he claims that movies studios include this “work made for hire recitation by rote whenever transacting with an author’s loan-out entity regardless of the true circumstances of a work’s creation.” Thus, he argus that the court should not focus on the language in the contract but should consider whether he really was an employee of Lady Amos when he wrote the screenplay. To that end, he argues that he was never paid a salary, that he did not receive employment benefits, and that Lady Amos never withheld income tax or social security.

The Fight Is Still Undecided

The bout between Hill and MGM remains undecided and likely will continue through the summer and into the fall. With Hill contesting the language in the original grant of IP rights, the case may provide a gameplan for future skirmishes. Movie studios, seeking to avoid this kind of litigatoin, may begin expediting its reboots to ensure they are completed before the original author tries to ring the 35-year termination bell.

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You?

Although few of us would like to admit it, fan favorites from the 1990’s will soon be celebrating their 35th anniversaries. Some of these have already received the remake/reboot treatment, such as The Mummy, Jumanji, and The Matrix, while others are rumored to be in early development. As long as studios continue banking on reboots, it seems as though the Central District of California will continue to have copyright cases on its docket.



17 U.S.C. §§ 203, 304

Hill v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Case No. 24-cv-01587-HDV-SSC (C.D. Cal.)

Markham Concepts, Inc. v. Hasbro, Inc., 1 F.4th 74 (1st Cir. 2021)

Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid, 490 U.S. 730 (1989)

John Wilson, The Official Razzie Movie Guide: Enjoying the Best of Hollywood’s Worst (2005).


copyright, litigation, ip