Netflix, Adam McKay Sued For Copyright Infringement Over ‘Don’t Look Up’
In 2012, William Collier self-published a dark comedy novel called Stanley’s Comet. It focuses on the discovery by a low-level NASA scientist of a giant comet on a collision course with Earth. Initially, the government is skeptical of whether it will make impact but eventually plans a nuclear strike, which, for political reasons, is aborted. In the meantime, the scientist is catapulted into fame as people are divided on whether to take the threat seriously and the wealthy make alternative plans for survival.
Viewers may recognize that plot from Don’t Look Up, according to a lawsuit Collier filed on Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court against Netflix, Adam McKay and his production company Hyperobject Industries. He accuses them of ripping off his book and says that the works are “strikingly similar” to each other, pointing to McKay receiving a copy of his novel through his manager.
Netflix and McKay didn’t respond to requests for comment on the suit, which seeks at least $5 million. Don’t Look Up, which was written and directed by McKay, was released in 2021 and was nominated for four Academy Awards, as well as best original screenplay by the Writers Guild of America.
According to the complaint, Collier’s daughter, Adrienne Metz, worked for Jimmy Miller Entertainment – a division of Mosaic Media Group – as an executive assistant to Michael Aguilar, then president of production at the company. Aguilar reported to Jimmy Miller, who the suit says was McKay’s manager until 2015. Miller and McKay often collaborated on projects, including the production of Talladega Nights, Step Brothers and Land of the Lost, the suit claims.
In 2007, Collier alleges that he sent a copy of his book to Metz at her request, with the understanding that she’d submit it for consideration. Through this process, McKay – a Mosaic client – reviewed the novel via Miller, according to the complaint.
“Since Stanley’s Comet was received by McKay’s manager, custom and practice in the entertainment industry dictates that this constitutes receipt by McKay,” writes Steven Lowe, a lawyer for Collier, in the suit. “Furthermore, upon information and belief, the Novel was transmitted via courier, email or hand-delivery (or via other means) to McKay himself.”
To prove copyright infringement, there typically must be proof that there was copying facilitated by access to the work at issue. Merely showing that an agency received a screenplay, for example, isn’t enough. Instead, evidence of submission to an intermediary who’s in a position to share the work with the creators alleged to have engaged in infringement is necessary.
The absence of proof of access served as the basis for dismissal last month of a suit against Disney, 20th Century Studios, CAA and James Gray accusing them of ripping off a production executive’s screenplay.
Collier cites extensive similarities between his novel and Don’t Look Up. Like the book, the movie is a dark comedy about a giant comet on a collusion course with Earth. The overlap doesn’t end there, with the works allegedly sharing identical mood, themes and characters, among other things.
“The movie, like the novel, makes a strong political critique of the media, the government, and the cultural elite by showcasing their shallowness and reliance on popular opinion polls and social media algorithms,” writes USC professor of comparative literature David Roman in an expert report attached to the complaint. “McKay’s film is also full of satire and humor and – like Stanley’s Comet – moves toward the absurd. In each case, the irony drives the humor and the social critique and does so in the same style and method.”
As for plot, the novel and movie both focus on low-level scientists finding a comet heading towards Earth. In conveying this message to the public, they go on a morning talk show, which undermines the urgency and nature of the matter, leading to most people being unbothered by the news.
Collier brings claims for copyright infringement and breach of implied-in-fact agreement.
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