Sci-fi master Harlan Ellison is suing director Andrew Niccol and Regency over the Justin Timberlake–Amanda Seyfreid futuristic thriller In Time, which he claims rips off his 1965 Nebula and Hugo Award winning short story “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said The Ticktockman.” He’s asking for an injunction to prevent the film’s release and that all copies of it be impounded and destroyed. Good luck with that, Harlan Ellison!
This is hardly Ellison’s first time at the copyright rodeo. He’s a pretty litigious guy in general, and has successfully petitioned for attribution on Terminator, sued ABC back in the seventies, and has even gone after AOL because its users pirated his stories. The suit against In Time says that “it is truly outrageous that Andrew Niccol and Regency have gone behind [Ellison’s] back to create a movie based on this iconic and valuable work without any attempt to obtain his authorization or to accord him credit,” and it enumerates some of the similarities between the works.
According to the suit, both “Repent, Harlequin!” and In Time are set in a “dystopian corporate future” where people are allotted specific life spans; in “Harlequin,” one’s remaining time is monitored by the “Master Timekeeper,” and in Time, it’s monitored by a “Senior Timekeeper.” In both works, characters’ time allotment can be altered, and when one’s time runs out, “death occurs by stoppage of the heart.” In both the story and the film, a hero disrupts the system and then becomes a target for the conformity-centric Timekeepers who then sic torture-prone thugs on the renegade.
To win his case, Ellison would need to prove that the works are “substantially similar,” which usually involves very close dialogue dialogue or relationships, and not just concepts. Copyright protects the execution of an idea, but not the idea itself — otherwise, there’d only ever be one dystopian-future movie, and poor Justin Timberlake would have to do something else.