Yet Another 'Stranger Things' Copyright Suit Over A String Of Likely Non-Protectable Elements
from the idea-vs.-expression dept
As one of, if not the, largest player in the streaming platform wars, Netflix is oft the target of copyright infringement threats and lawsuits. These actions against it have by and large been found to be absolutely baseless. Whether it’s estates of long-dead authors, private prisons, or the brother of dead drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, there are plenty of folks out there who see a wealthy company on the rise and try to get a piece of that cash for themselves by making dubious intellectual property claims.
But if Netflix is the biggest player in streaming, then certainly its hit show Stranger Things is its most notable contribution. And, so, it’s no surprise that the show has faced copyright challenges in the past and is being sued once again by someone claiming the idea for the show was his first.
A lawsuit filed by Irish Rover Entertainment on Wednesday (July 15) in California federal court claims that Stranger Things has copied a number of things from Totem, a screenplay written by Jeffrey Kennedy (via TheWrap).
The suit alleges that the Netflix show lifted the “plot, sequence, characters, theme, dialogue, mood, and setting, as well as copyrighted concept art” from Totem.
The filing itself is embedded below, but it’s exactly what one who follows this sort of thing would expect. Rather than alleging any concrete examples of directly copying Totem, the suit’s allegations string together a zillion elements of supposed copying, none of which would be actionable on their own. This is a common tactic, with courts in the past having found that the composition of otherwise unprotectable elements can be afforded copyright protection if that composition on its own is creatively sufficient in a unique way. It’s something roughly like how you can’t copyright a single note from a guitar, but an original composition of notes can be protected.
But about those elements cited, well, have a look for yourself at some examples.
Some of the events in Totem take place in the woods where Agent Sam Miller, under Azrael’s control, chases Kimimela. Similarly, in Stranger Things, Eleven is also pursued by the “Bad Men” through the woods.
Characters interact with Azrael in an alternate plane. The interaction is marked by Lightning. Characters interact with the Shadow Monster in an alternate plane is also marked by lightning.
Well, yeah, it’s a creepy thriller movie about the supernatural, so you’d expect-
In Totem, the tag line “promise?” is used as a literary device in the dialogue throughout the script. Multiple characters use the word “promise” to either verbally ask or verbally commit to an agreement. This dialogue tag is used countless times in the story and often marks the end of a scene and creates a transition. In Stranger Things, the tag line “promise?” is used as a literary device in the dialogue throughout the series. Multiple characters use the word “promise” to either verbally ask or verbally commit to an agreement. This dialogue tag is used countless times in the story and often marks the end of a scene and creates a transition.
But putting “promise?” at the end of dialogue is really common in both fiction and in life, so-
Sam Miller is an FBI agent who is involved in a crash near an industrial area. This is when Azrael takes control of Sam. Billy Hargrove also is involved in an accident in an industrial area. This is when the Shadow Monster takes control of Billy’s mind and forces him to do his bidding.
Those don’t actually seem that similar at all?
It can be easy to get fooled by this sort of thing. What the lawsuit is listing is a bunch of ideas, some of which have similarities between Totem and Stranger Things. But there is an idea/expression dichotomy in copyright. Thematic elements, generic settings, and even character traits aren’t afforded copyright protection. Instead, the specific expression of those ideas is. So, when Stranger Things‘ character isn’t an FBI agent and is instead a rogue thug of a lifeguard, you don’t have a copyright claim there.
And yet I listed only a small sample of the accusations in the filing. The hope with this sort of thing is that if you string together enough vague similarities among the non-protected elements, you can convince the court or jury that copying of the composition had been committed and that composition is what gets copyright protection. It’s a strategy that rarely works, however, as seen in a previous lawsuit over Stranger Things.
This isn’t the first time the Duffer Brothers have been sued over the creation of Stranger Things. In 2018, the pair were accused of stealing the show’s concept by filmmaker Charlie Kessler. Kessler produced a short film in 2012 called Montauk and alleged that he and his agents pitched the idea of turning it into a full series to the Duffer Brothers in April 2014.
Kessler dropped his lawsuit the day before it was set to go to trial.
Here’s a hint: when several people can file lawsuits against a single work claiming copying of essentially the same elements, then you’re suing over non-protectable things.
Besides, everyone knows Stranger Things got all its ideas from Dungeons & Dragons.