On March 19th, a Universal Pictures film entitled Repo Men will enter theaters. This film envisions a near-future world in which replacement organs can be purchased on payment plans available from a giant corporation. In the event that an organ buyer defaults on payment, the company dispatches “repo men” to retrieve the company’s property, which will presumably result in the death or at least the suffering of the victim. This is the backdrop against which the story in Repo Men takes place.
If this movie concept seems eerily familiar to you, you’re in good company. As many fans have already noted, this is exactly the same concept found in the 2008 Lionsgate film REPO! The Genetic Opera. So, is this an incident of film plagiarism? Well, as REPO! co-creator Terrance Zdunich notes in his blog, the situation (at least from a legal standpoint) is far more complicated.
To begin with, there can be no doubt about where this common concept originated. Regardless of whether or not the Universal film is “deeply inspired by” REPO! The Genetic Opera, REPO! is the older of the two, its release predating Repo Men by about a year and a half. Even in terms of origin, REPO! The Genetic Opera came first: it is documented as a stage performance in 2001/2002 (and, indeed, traces its origins back to the late 90s), while Repo Men is stated to have been based on the novel Repossession Mambo, which was published in 2009. Even taking all claims at face value and assuming Repossession Mambo spent several years being drafted, there can be no question that REPO! The Genetic Opera has the older lineage.
Certainly, this may be a case of an amazing idea occurring in two different locations (although one can hardly fault REPO! supporters for seeing something suspicious in so significant a coincidence). Alternatively, there may be something untoward afoot (it would hardly be a first time for Hollywood). But what people may overlook in this situation is the more universal lesson: the terrible reality that while you can copyright a story, you cannot copyright a concept.
The REPO! vs Repo situation should be especially chilling to any writer watching it play out. As Zdunich notes, to prove foul play in a court of law (the only way he and co-creator Darren Smith would be able to receive compensation from Repo Men) they would have to prove that their dialogue was being plagiarized by Repo Men. Presumably they could have tried to demonstrate a case of plagiarized plot or copied characters, but that would still remain difficult to demonstrate if exact wording was not copied. And unfortunately for them, this is not the case.
As far as the text is concerned, REPO! The Genetic Opera and Repo Men are two different films. They have different characters, their plotlines and events are distinct, and they do not share a common setting (certain broad parallels aside). What they do share is a concept, one that is critical to both of the films: the idea of a world in which organs can be obtained on payment plans, which can then be repossessed in the event of failure to pay. Without this concept, neither film could exist in an identifiable form. This concept is perhaps the most important part of REPO! The Genetic Opera created by Zdunich and Smith, and it is precisely the one major aspect of their creation that they cannot copyright. The most troubling issue here is not whether or not Repo Men is plagiarizing REPO! The Genetic Opera, but that Zdunich and Smith cannot benefit from the fact that their idea existed in an identifiable form first.
What is also troubling about this situation is that Repo Men will probably be a good film, just as REPO! The Genetic Opera is. Repo Men looks to have a significantly larger budget than REPO! (which REPO! could certainly have used, although one never ceases to be impressed by how well REPO! turned out in spite of its financial restrictions). Both movies have excellent casts, though it seems unlikely that the villain in Repo Men will be able to equal the majestic evil portrayed by Paul Sorvino. And Repo Men is certainly enjoying far more advertising and release support from Universal than REPO! ever received from Lionsgate, which will no doubt help its success. But no matter how good Repo Men proves to be, it cannot remove the sinister taint associated with it, a taint that reminds the artistic community just how vulnerable their creations are.
Let this be a warning to creative people everywhere: guard your creations well, but at the same time steel yourselves for the possibility of a Repo befalling you. You can copyright your stories, you can copyright your art, but you cannot copyright the beautiful ideas that give them their uniqueness and life. It is frightening and it is upsetting, but it is inescapable.