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Apple tells moviemakers that villains can’t use iPhones, Rian Johnson says

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iPhones must not be used for fictional evil — It’s not clear how Apple enforces the alleged no-iPhones-for-villains rule. Jon Brodkin – Feb 26, 2020 7:07 pm UTC Enlarge / The iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max running iOS 13.Apple does not let filmmakers show villains using iPhones on camera, movie…

iPhones must not be used for fictional evil —

It’s not clear how Apple enforces the alleged no-iPhones-for-villains rule.


Multiple smartphones on a table.

Enlarge / The iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max running iOS 13.

Apple does not let filmmakers show villains using iPhones on camera, movie director Rian Johnson said in a new interview with Vanity Fair.

“Apple, they let you use iPhones in movies, but—and this is very pivotal if you’re ever watching a mystery movie—bad guys cannot have iPhones on camera,” Johnson said. Johnson said he was reluctant to reveal that tidbit “because it’s going to screw me on the next mystery movie that I write,” but he added, “forget it, I’ll say it. It’s very interesting.”

“Every single filmmaker that has a bad guy in their movie that’s supposed to be a secret wants to murder me right now,” Johnson said. He made the comment while talking about a scene from his mystery film Knives Out. The remark is at the 2:50 mark of this video:

Ryan Johnson’s Vanity Fair interview.

We contacted Apple today to ask if Johnson’s comments were accurate, and we asked for details on what kinds of product-placement arrangements Apple has with movie makers. We’ll update this story if we get a response.

Nature of Apple’s demand unclear

What isn’t clear from Johnson’s remarks is whether there’s any legal force to Apple’s alleged demand that movie villains not use iPhones. If Apple is paying for product placement, it can obviously exert influence over how its products are used on screen. In other cases, movie studios might be cautious about respecting Apple’s wishes in order to avoid lawsuits, even if the studios would be within their rights to have a villain use an iPhone in a movie scene.

“I’m comfortable saying that moviemakers don’t need a license [from product makers] to have characters using everyday products in normal ways,” Legal Director John Bergmayer of advocacy group Public Knowledge, who specializes in intellectual property issues, told Ars today. “Maybe you could gin up some scenario where there’s an implied endorsement, but that seems rare—not that this would discourage frivolous lawsuits.”

Public Knowledge has advocated against overzealous enforcement of trademarks over the years.

Bergmayer said he doubts that “merely having a bad guy driving a car or using a phone” could be considered tarnishment of a trademark.

He also noted that Apple could merely be restricting how movie studios use products that are given to them by Apple. “If Apple just puts strings on the use of free stuff they give to production houses, I don’t think I care in the least,” Bergmayer said.

In Knives Out, “you can see several other characters who are suspects carry or use iPhones,” but “the ultimate bad guy… does not have an iPhone in the film,” CNBC wrote today.

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