Last week, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied a motion for summary judgement submitted by Stranger Things creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, in a breach of implied contract suit filed by independent filmmaker Charlie Kessler. Kessler claims the Duffers stole the idea for their show after he pitched his own project to the brothers at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.
With sky-high ratings, an accompanying book deal, and a PlayStation VR game in the works, Stranger Things has made its mark as the single most popular streaming show of all time. Based in small-town 80’s America, the series (originally titled The Montauk Experiments) focuses on the disappearance of a young boy and the dark forces that unfurl as his family and friends search for answers. What starts as a simple missing persons case develops into a supernatural mystery that includes top-secret government experiments, children with extraordinary psychic abilities, and a monster from another dimension. Though viewers have embraced the innovative premise of the Duffer Brothers’ creation, filmmaker Charlie Kessler alleges that the idea was taken directly from his short film, Montauk, as well as his accompanying feature-film screenplay, The Montauk Project. Like the Duffers’ story, Kessler’s work centers on the search for a missing boy, a battle against paranormal forces, and the discovery of an abandoned military base that conducts secret experiments on children.
It may seem odd that Kessler chose to bring an implied-contract claim, rather than a copyright infringement complaint. However, under federal copyright law, Kessler has no case. Ideas – even those that are finely detailed and significantly developed – cannot be copyrighted. This means that a film idea, and “any of the characters portrayed [with]in it” is largely free for the taking, regardless of who thought of it first. Under the contract claim, however, Kessler can (and does) allege that there was a “mutual [understanding]…that [the Duffers] would not disclose, use, and/or exploit” Kessler’s ideas. The Duffers aim to show that they independently created Stranger Things prior to meeting Kessler, a complete defense against the filmmaker’s claims in the state of California. (See Teich v. General Mills, 170 Cal.App.2nd 791, 799 (1959)).
While the Duffers’ motion for summary judgement cites emails from 2010, three years before Kessler’s alleged pitch, that detail their plans for a supernatural film project, Judge Michael L. stated that the brothers provided insufficient “verifying evidence of the originality of their idea,” raising several issues surrounding the ownership of original work. The emails directly reference central elements of Stranger Things, such as a protagonist who is “[a]bducted with a group of other psychically gifted…children,” a “[s]ecret underground research facility,” and the “opening up another dimension” that leads to a “creature…escap[ing].” Considering the specificity of these plot details, one must wonder: what doesconstitute sufficient, unrebutted evidence of the originality of a creative idea?
The answer to this question could have a serious impact on Hollywood’s creative circles and the manner in which artists develop and pitch their ideas. With the possibility of an implied contract breach stemming from standard mingling lurking on the horizon, industry movers may become more hesitant to hear casual pitches from relative unknowns. This, of course, could make it increasingly difficult for independent artists to break into the Hollywood sphere and secure financing for their projects. On the flipside, the protections Kessler seeks to establish may give emerging writers and directors some comfort that, should they manage to pitch their next big project to potential collaborators, sponsors, or producers, their work will be safe from copycats.
The trial, now with a May 7th start date, is set not only to provide insights into the development of Netflix’s runaway series, but may also serve as an indicator for how the entertainment industry as a whole could evolve to regulate the free exchange of creative ideas.
Matt Shields and Susannah Benjamin are Entertainment Highlight Contributors for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and current first year students at Harvard Law School (Class of 2021).