LOS ANGELES -- Get ready for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of the New World. Expect a rash of anniversary exhibits, symposiums, books and the like. Now comes the commemorative lawsuit:

A Netherlands-based production company making a movie called "Christopher Columbus" is suing director Ridley Scott ("Alien") and a Paris-based production company that also happen to be making a movie called "Christopher Columbus." The suit, which includes charges of trademark infringement and misappropriation of ideas and requests $40 million in damages, was filed in federal court a week after dueling ads for the films appeared the same day, Nov. 7, in the trade paper Variety.

Both films are set to come out in -- you guessed it -- 1992. The plaintiff's suit alleges that the Scott movie has caused confusion. "People are trying to figure out exactly what the heck is going on," said the plaintiff's attorney, Bert Deixler. "There's no doubt there's confusion."

Understandably, the defendants disagree. "I'm sure you're familiar with the Robin Hood situation," said an associate of Scott's, referring to the fact that several Robin Hood movies are set to come out in the next year, one starring Kevin Costner. "I don't think anyone's going to be confused when Kevin Costner appears as Robin Hood."

So as the quincentennial of the great discovery rolls around, the name of Christopher Columbus is taking its place in the ranks of such fought-over movie titles as "Lambada." (That momentary dance craze gave way to a title dispute among producers of the several movies it inspired.)

In this case, more than the name is at issue -- since Scott at one time considered directing the plaintiff's "Christopher Columbus" -- but the name is important. The plaintiff in this case takes it very seriously. For one thing the company calls itself Christopher Columbus Productions. It has hired Alexander and Ilya Salkind -- of the "Superman" movies -- to produce the picture.

For another thing, more than a year ago Christopher Columbus Productions went to the trouble of registering with the Motion Picture Association of American five conceivable variations of a title for a movie about the explorer.

It chose: "Christopher Columbus -- The Movie," "Christopher Columbus -- The Discovery," "Christopher Columbus -- The Discovery of America," "Christopher Columbus -- The Film" and, finally, "Christopher Columbus -- The Motion Picture."

Every now and then a company tries to corner the title market. When the Israeli raid on the airport at Entebbe, Uganda, made worldwide headlines in the '70s, one company came in and registered a dozen Entebbe titles, remembers Dorothy Beer, who has worked for the MPAA's Title Registration Bureau in New York for 45 years and has headed it for the past 17.

"When Marilyn Monroe died -- that happened on a weekend," Beer says. "On Monday, one of the companies came over with at least 10 variations with Marilyn Monroe in the title."

A title itself -- as opposed to a film -- cannot be copyrighted. And in fact, registering a title with the MPAA's Title Registration Bureaumeans only that another subscriber to the registry can't use the same name.

And even if one did, it's unclear what penalty would be incurred -- besides banishment from subscription to the registry.

"We have no jurisdiction over a company that's not a subscriber to the system," Beer said.

But Christopher Columbus Productions also alleges that Ridley Scott took advantage of the materials he was shown when he met several times in 1989 with the Salkind brothers to discuss directing their film. The plaintiff says that Scott's movie -- which the suit refers to as "Christopher Columbus 2" -- is based on ideas and sources that were "communicated in confidence" to Scott. Those include "mockups of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria created by the Spanish government in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage to North America" and "books and documents obtained by plaintiff from private collections not generally available to the public."

Scott's associates, who did not wish to be identified, insist that their screenplay is completely different from that of the Salkind movie and does not rely on materials that the Salkinds shared with Scott. "The writer of our materials {Roselyne Bosch} first copyrighted her materials in 1988," says one. "From what we understand, ours is extremely different."

The Scott associate scoffs: "These highly confidential sources they're talking about are ludicrous. Three of them are books which are readily available over the counter in any bookstore. The other thing is some kind of a manuscript which is available from the library." As for the name problem, he says he's not even certain Scott's movie will be called "Christopher Columbus." "It may be called something like that," he says. "I think they're talking about Columbus."

Adds a Scott spokeswoman: "Our writer did three years of research into the truth of the character."

But, she says, "We're easy. We're not going to come out with a movie that's called exactly the same thing as something else."