Can I Sue?

I got this email the other day:

If you’ve got
any time in your hectic sked to offer me advice I’d be grateful. As far as I know, you’re not a lawyer, but as a seasoned pro you may know!
Anyone that writes anything knows that ideas float around the ether waiting to be written.
Who hasn’t at least once, had that great , only to find out a week later  has just nailed a deal for the
same premise. That’s just the way it goes.

However… six years ago I wrote my first screenplay. It’s called XYZ, and it’s about an ex-astronaut who owns a farm/ranch in Montana. He builds his own rocket in a grain silo to launch himself into space.
Today I read that Billy Bob Thornton is to star in a movie called THE ASTRONAUT FARMER about… well you guessed it!There are no other plot points for me to see and compare yet.

I registered the screenplay electronically with ProtectRite in 1999. In the past few years I’ve entered the screenplay into a few competitions including Tribeca Films – for which I got a commendation, didn’t win of course.

So my question is this… let’s say this in-production screenplay bears a remarkable or even "uncanny" similarity to my finished work in structure and story. Do I have any recourse,  or is it just tough shit as I’m a still un-produced nobody without an agent?

Like you said, I’m not a lawyer. My guess is that
you’d have to prove that the screenwriter and producers had access to your screenplay and read it.
But I will say this, it’s not the world’s most original idea. There was even an
Andy Griffith TV movie with roughly the same concept and that later spawned a
short-lived TV series called SALVAGE ONE.

I think you sort of answered the question yourself in the first paragraph of your email… sometimes, people just get the same idea at the same time.

Many years ago, Bill and I thought we had a great idea for a spec script… a Russian cop who comes to the U.S. to find a bad guy and gets paired up with an LAPD detective. We called it RED HEAT. We were in the midst of writing it when we heard about…you guessed it… a movie going into production called RED HEAT starring Arnold as a Russian cop. This has happened to us many times during our career.

For a couple years now, Bill and I have been pitching a procedural series around town  about a special, multi-agency law enforcement team that goes after the most-wanted fugitives. This summer, TNT premiered WANTED, a series with the same basic notion. Do we think we were ripped off? No. There were probably a dozen guys out there pitching a variation of the same idea at the same time we were. That’s the entertainment business.


3 thoughts on “Can I Sue?”

  1. This happened to me a few years back. On my honeymoon, my new wife and I conceived of a mystery series about a retired police officer and his wife traveling the country in their RVs, solving mysteries. I was well into the book when I read in EQMM that Gar Anthony Heywood was starting a series about, yep, the exact same subject.
    And he wrote two fine books, too, darn him.
    Now, at no point did our paths cross. It was just one of those things.
    My more embarrassing moment came when I was working for a game company. I had a great idea for a fantasy series, and explained it in great detail to my boss, who pointed out that it was the plot of a fantasy movie released the year before. As soon as he said that, I realized that he was right. I had completely forgotten that part.

  2. I read or heard that at one of the World’s Fairs, held in Chicago in the early twentieth century, three seperate companies had basically the same motion picture display at three different booth’s. They all thought it was a great new idea. This story always keeps me humble whenever I think I have an incredibly original idea.

  3. I’ve been ripped off for ideas a few times so I know that it does happen. My first screen play was a story about a child witnessing a mob hit… refuses to give a statement unless he is allowed to be a Jr. Policeman for a week… I thought of James Woods for the officer who just lost his child in a bitter custody battle…
    My title was Cop and a Half…
    You’ll never guess what happened a few years after I started shopping the script out…
    Then there was the movie Dickie Roberts… that idea I pitched to the Jet Productions crew while on the set of a David Spade film called Jerome. My idea is that a child star has been can not make it in the real world… cannot win over the woman he loves because he didn’t have a real childhood… so he pretends to be involved in a reality TV show and has a friend follow him around with a video camera while he tries to land a simple job… tries to take a few college courses… tries to date the girl.. different from Dickie Roberts only I wrote up scenes involving the celebrity boxing… the card games where Brady’s bet Brady Show memorabilia…
    I wouldn’t sue because I’ve seen Dickie Roberts… hahahaha… they did me a favor… I never even received the $4000. I was supposed to get for working on Jerome… this happens in this business…
    I am just grateful that I am able to keep on keeping on and losing one idea won’t break my bank…
    For that I thank God and the angels!


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