Tue
Sep 20 2011 4:56pm
“Repent Timberlake!” Said Harlan Ellison

“Repent Timberlake!” Said Harlan Ellison

The hotly anticipated Justin Timberlake/ Andrew Niccol joint In Time has recently come under fire from Harlan Ellison. The SF giant is claiming the film has the exact same premise as his uber-famous short story “‘Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Tick Tock Man.” As a result, Ellison is suing Niccol and attempting to facilitate an injunction against the film’s release. The Hollywood Reporter weighed in, noting that copyright laws don’t necessarily protect ideas alone; that a concept’s story and dialogue need to be similar enough to one another in order for a violation to exist legally. So the question becomes, does Harlan Ellison have a legitimate complaint? And I think the answer might be: maybe.

I think “’Repent Harlequin!’” might be in danger of being ripped off by In Time based solely on what I saw in the preview. The concept of an oppressive society in which the primary mode of control is the doling out of literal time is the exact same premise as the famous Ellison story. There are characters called Timekeepers, and someone ends up being on the run from them.

As articles from both The Guardian and New York Magazine articles have pointed out, there are a lot of dystopian science fiction stories out there and there probably isn’t something unique enough about Ellison’s story to win the case. While I’m not an expert and am unsure what he needs to win the lawsuit, I will say, that to my knowledge, that story is pretty damn unique conceptually. I believe that a lot of even casual fans of print SF would have recognized elements of “’Repent Harlequin!’” when they saw that preview; time being used as a commodity, the idea that people are penalized by removal of time, and someone eventually going on the run with a female accomplice, all of these things the preview shares in common with the Ellison story. Will the complete movie end up being deadly similar? Well I suppose if Amanda Seyfried ends up betraying Timberlake, then yes. (Er, spoilers?) If the plot is totally different, and Timberlake wins, or the Timekeepers turn out to be good guys, then I guess it would be a significantly different thing. But the preview was close enough to “’Repent Harlequin!’” that it gave me pause.

As The Onion’s AV Club points out, Ellison has a long history of legal action insofar as it relates to the protection of his work. Way back when Ellison sued James Cameron over The Terminator, there was a smoking gun in the form of Cameron actually saying out loud something to the effect that he “ripped off a few Harlan Ellison stories.” Whether there is a similar smoking gun with Niccol remains to be seen. However, what I find troublesome about the analysis of Ellison’s history of lawsuits is the way that history seems to be slanting some of the news on this story. In my opinion, most of these articles contain a dose of snark that seems to come along with every piece of news about Ellison getting upset about something. I happen to enjoy Harlan Ellison, and don’t find his quick temper to be all that offensive. Also, I think it’s relatively tiresome to go ad hominem when talking about a question of whether or not someone’s really cool idea is in fact being ripped off. Just because Ellison has a reputation of being testy, does that mean his complaint here is illegitimate?

According to this MovieFoneBlog piece, well-known film critic Richard Roeper has seen the full movie and actually thought the movie was based on the Ellison short story. So if Andrew Niccol’s script turns out to be VERY similar to Ellison’s story, then I’m a little baffled as to why they wouldn’t have simply approached Ellison in pre-production. I suppose it’s possible Andrew Niccol hasn’t read or heard of “’Repent Harlequin!’” but I would find that a bit shocking considering how much genre cred Niccols has.

Maybe Niccols knows his story is totally different and that in the end Ellison will realize it and everything will be fine. (This happened back when the 2009 Star Trek was rumored to feature The Guardian on the Edge of Forever. Ellison initially voiced concern, and then when it was revealed there was nothing from his famous Trek episode in the new film, he admitted he was wrong and came out in support of J.J. Abrams.) Roeper’s belief that this was an adapatation of the story sort of puts this kind of outcome in question, however. It’s not like Roeper is a guy has a reputation for being controversial for the sake of it.

That little detail is not mentioned in most of the news articles online regarding this story, and I think what gets lost in all of this is that Harlan Ellison totally has a right to get upset out something like this, even if he turns out to be wrong. Many articles seem to imply that “this happens a lot with him.” Well, maybe that’s not because he’s a difficult guy, but instead because he’s written a lot of cool stories! If you had any reason to believe the guy who made Gattaca was ripping off your most famous story and Timberlake was the star, you’d be pissed too.

“Repent Timberlake!” Said Harlan EllisonJust because Ellison has a reputation of one kind or another doesn’t make that short story any less special. In my opinion, the concept of that story is so singular and so elegantly original that if In Time does turn out to be a rip-off, it will sort of ruin the story. If you’ve ever listened to Robin Williams reading “Repent Harlequin!”, then you know it’s a beautiful piece of work that deserves better than to be casually poached by a big budget movie. And as thinking people, fans shouldn’t sit by and poke fun at this situation just because the man who wrote the story might be perceived as controversial. The story itself features a character who injects chaos into a world addicted to soul-sucking order and routine. A big Hollywood production company certainly reminds me of the Master Time Keeper, whereas as Ellison reminds me a little more of Harlequin. And though Harlequin didn’t beat the system by throwing his jellybeans into the cogs, he was heroic when he did it. Let Ellison throw his jellybeans. He’s got every right to.


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.

18 comments
TomC
1. TomC
I'm not sure the suit will work. The film REPO: a genetic opera was essentially ripped off when the movie Repo (with Jude Law) came out and there wasn't a thing they could do about it.
TomC
2. Smaug's Li'l Brother Puff
I dunno. I love Ellison, and "Repent..." is probably the one thing I can point at and say, "This was my gateway into science fiction," but based solely on the trailer, I'd say William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson have a better case than Harlan.

The Harlequin was an act-er, a terrorist with an agenda and a sense of whimsy. Timberlake's character looks way more like a man "pushed too far," and more a react-er, like Logan.

FWIW, I also got more of a Javert vibe off Cillian Murphy than Ticktockman or Sandman, but that remains to be seen.
Chris Palmer
3. cmpalmer
I haven't seen the full film, but I will admit that when I saw the trailer in the theater, I thought it was an adaptation of "Repent Harlequin" and at the end, when I realized it wasn't, I turned to my wife and said, "Ellison is gonna sue them." Just based on his history.

Oh, and the Guardian of Forever wasn't in the latest Star Trek, but it was in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Take a look at the Fountain of Youth.
TomC
4. Improbable Joe
I think, too, that people don't realize the sheer volume of work that Ellison produced, and how much of it was actually pretty decent stuff. It isn't like he produced a novel every two years and a collection of short-stories every once in a while. He wrote hundreds of short stories, probably a few hundred more essays, a metric butt-load of scripts, and a few novels too just for variety. And he didn't win one or two awards, he won most of the big ones multiple times.

So it is no wonder that Ellison sues a bunch of people. By the same token, I'm sure lawyers representing The Beatles or the Rolling Stones have to deal with more copyright and trademark issues than some one-hit wonder from the 1980s. Apple sues more people than Coby. You get my meaning.
TomC
5. nichimanen
I've read both the Ellison short story and the Niccol script and I don't see them being the same. I think Roeper needs to re-read the short story.
As @Smaug's Li'l Brother Puff points out The Harlequin IS an 'act-er' and Timberlake's character IS a 'react-er'.
In fact you can go point for point in each story and see the difference. (i.e. as in the trailer - no one gives The Harlequin extra time as in 'In Time', the identity of Timberlake's character is known to the Timekeepers - The Harlequin's is not, Timberlake's character is not a rebel against the time by being perpetually late and is not an anti-authority figure (at first at least) and finally - this may be a spoiler to those who haven't read the short story - Timberlake's character does not steal/become the top Timekeeper.

If Ellison is basing this lawsuit on Roeper's review then it iss based on hearsay and if that is the case it will probably summarily thrown out of court.
TomC
6. Amon Riley
If you’ve ever listened to Robin Williams reading “Repent Harlequin!”, then you know it’s a beautiful piece of work that deserves better than to be casually poached by a big budget movie.

Where can I listen to Robin Williams reading "Repent Harlequin!"? The library doesn't have it and it's too expensive on Amazon.
TomC
7. blueworld
Independent invention IS a defense in copyright cases. Copyright doesn't protect an idea, it protects the fixed form of a work. A similar work violates copyright only if it's a "derivative" of the original. So if someone else came up with a remarkably similar story to yours, but had never read your story, they're not violating copyright. Even if the filmmakers did "poach" Ellison's idea, IMO they should have a right to do so. Publishing a story with an idea doesn't lock that idea up forever.
Christoper Turkel
8. zizban
The key phrase is copyright infringement is "Knowingly and willfully infringing". Ellison, as the plantiff, would have to prove the filmmakers knowingly and willingly ripped off his story. That's a huge task and the reason why copyright cases are so hard to win. And the burden is on Ellison to prove it. Good luck with that.
Ron Hogan
9. RonHogan
I just looked at the trailer, and, yeah, the central conceit of the ruling classes owning the minutes of your life is there, but beyond that I think the story and the film are taking two separate approaches. It's not even like saying "Friends with Benefits" is a ripoff of "No Strings Attached," because at least those two are both the same type of story.

But maybe I'm wrong, and we just haven't seen the footage of Justin Timberlake dumping tons of jelly beans on the streets of Los Angeles.
M F
10. Madeline
Having not read any Ellison, the idea of an evil totalitarian future where the oligarchs skip money and go right to controlling time sounds pretty obvious. Time is the valuable thing, of course. Well, time and art and genius.

And if it's a Hollywood movie, of course we're going to have a white male on the run with his less-useful girl romantic interest. The rest of the cast will largely/almost entirely be white and male as well. There will be CGI that was better done as props. Someone will say "You have to go on! Leave me!" The white guy we're cheering for will punch a baddie. Music will swell. Etc.
TomC
11. N. Mamatas
One possible reason why articles about Ellison's suits may involve snark—Ellison sues partially in order to keep his name in the newspapers. That may be why, for example, he's suing now and not eighteen months ago.
TomC
12. DarrenJL
@11... Or you can credit Ellison for having a brain, and knowing the right time to sue.
TomC
13. critter42
If he keeps winning (or getting settlements, which amount to the same thing in the court of public opinion), how can the lawsuits be frivolous? He may be litigious, but he ain't stupid.
TomC
14. Scotoma
One can always trust in Ellison to provide the lulz. It's hards to know which would be more fun, seeing Ellison lose or seeing him actually win.
Ryan Britt
15. ryancbritt
@9 Ron Hogan
Totally fair. However, if there is one jellybean in this movie, I am losing it! :-)

@11 N. Mamatas
I really doubt that Nick. He's an older guy, and I don't think he's got any interest in being in the papers. Just my opinion.

@13 critter
I think that's kind of my point! A lot of times people's great art gets sort of compromised and they don't do anything about it. Harlan does do something about it, and often is seen as the bad guy. It's something to think about!
David Hawkins
16. dhawkin4
@ 13
They settle out of court to make sure there is no injunction against the release of the film. The producers would rather pay an unwarrented 7 figure settlement so that they can get to their projected 9 figure box office income so he can keep suing and keep getting settlements and it can still be frivoulous because it can look like he is just trying to make an extra buck
TomC
17. tarbis
Historically he waited until after release and tried for a piece of the profits. (Usually getting something in the settlement.) The last few years Harlan's been making noise before release and ending up with nothing.
Unless someone leaked him a copy of the final cut of the movie and it has obvious whole cloth elements from the story he doesn't have a leg to stand on and is just wasting the court's time.
TomC
18. N. Mamatas
Given that Ellison not only agreed to be the subject of, but had a fudiciary interest in, a very positively biased documentary about his own life and career, the idea that he's an old guy who doesn't want to be in the public eye anymore strikes me as a bit off.

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