Legally, It Doesn’t Matter If Amazon Used A.I. to Finish ‘Road House’ — but It Sure ‘Smells Bad’

Amazon has vehemently denied using artificial intelligence to finish its upcoming remake of “Road House,” despite a new lawsuit alleging the studio did just that to race the film out before the studio’s copyright on the original IP lapsed. But whether or not the studio did employ AI for the project, it won’t matter to a jury when it comes to determining if Amazon screwed the original “Road House” screenwriter out of some royalty money.

The lawsuit, filed by screenwriter R. Lance Hill (pen name David Lee Henry) this week, is a classic example of copyright reversion that has been a thorn in the sides of Hollywood studios for the last few years. The 1976 Copyright Act gives the original creator the rights to their creation back from its current owner after a period of 35 years.

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It gives songwriters, artists, screenwriters, and more who maybe didn’t get a fair shake at compensation the first time around “another bite at the apple,” as attorney Scott Keniley, legal counsel for music app Soundscape, told IndieWire. That’s meant that for the last five years or so, a bunch of iconic ’80s movies have all come under similar legal scrutiny.

Some writers, like the ones who created “Friday the 13th,” have clawed their rights back. Other projects on the cusp of reversion have inspired remakes being thrown together to get under the deadline, as with Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary.” Some have resulted in some quiet re-negotiations and deals. Others have gotten ugly.

Hill’s lawsuit so far is falling into the latter category, but what makes this suit particularly eyebrow-raising is Hill’s accusation that Amazon knew the clock was running out on their rights and thus used AI to try to complete the movie before a looming November 2023 deadline. Under the 1976 law, the original creator has to give a two-year “statutory notice of termination” period, which Hill did with “Road House” in November 2021 saying he intended to reclaim the rights.

That gave Amazon two years to get the movie made by November 2023; then the SAG-AFTRA strike happened. The lawsuit alleges the studio scrambled after that and “went so far as to take extreme measures to try to meet this November 10, 2023 deadline, at considerable additional cost, including by resorting to the use of AI (artificial intelligence)” to “replicate the voices” of the actors in the 2024 remake. The accusation also echoed an earlier assertion from the movie’s former producer Joel Silver that he had raised concerns about the use of AI.

As Keniley explained, AI may be a hot topic in Hollywood right now, but it’s hardly the pertinent issue at stake in this particular case. However Amazon managed to finish the movie — or not finish the movie — is besides the point for this lawsuit. For the “end all, be all, it’s going to be about the copyright,” Keniley said.

“The fact that [Amazon] knew about his notice, they knew the November 2023 deadline of reversion of rights, they were racing to get it done, they were saying, ‘Let’s get this done before this guy gets it back.’ Basically, they’re doing everything they could,” Keniley said.

But in regards to “the AI thing, allegedly, the studio is saying they did not use the AI for this purpose,” Keniley said. “None of us really know what the facts on that are, and that may be right, but I kind of feel like it doesn’t pass the smell test. All they had to do was negotiate another deal with this guy.”

Hill wants the movie’s release halted. It’s supposed to premiere at SXSW next week (without director Doug Liman in attendance), and it debuts on Amazon Prime Video (but not in theaters!) later in the month. Keniley said he thinks, regardless of the AI question, this was an instance in which somebody “got cheap” when they didn’t have to. And he predicts that “Road House” will, of course, still come out, Hill will get paid, and he’ll get his invite to the premiere, as (almost) always happens.

But the AI allegation is just another ugly stain on a lot of drama surrounding “Road House.” He said if the studio did use AI to finish the film, it goes against the things actors just fought for in their new contract.

“I don’t think the AI would matter anyway whether they use it to the finish [the film]. But it violates the principles of the strike settlements that they’re not going to be using AI to replace the efforts of actors and replacing the efforts of the writers,” Keniley said. “So if AI was used, it just looks bad, it smells bad.”

Amazon may argue that, because of the strikes, it was unable to finish the movie, and the studio should have been allowed more time to meet Hill’s termination deadline. Keniley believes that argument is unlikely to hold up.

But there’s another reason Amazon should be reluctant to use AI in the present moment anyway: Material that is artificially generated currently cannot be copyrighted, and that could be a bigger problem than a copyright lawsuit if there was AI-generated material in the film (again, which Amazon says there is not).

Keniley believes that, perhaps in a matter of years, that will change, and federal law will see AI differently. Currently for something to be copyrighted, you have to show a “minimal human effort” to prove you created it. Even snapping a photo on your smartphone still qualifies, Keniley said, and he believes the sophistication of some AI prompts will someday be recognized by the copyright office because of the minimal effort it took a human to write that prompt.

“Ultimately, this is going to change, where you’re going to be able to hold a copyright on something AI made at your direction,” Keniley said. “Not everybody agrees with me.”

It seems like Amazon’s battles with “Road House” and its legacy may just be beginning.

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