There’s a lot of noise about the Duffer Brothers being sued for plagiarism, with the case going to trial on May 6. They are being sued by Charles Kessler, who claims that in 2014 he pitched the Duffers an idea for a feature-length movie based on his short film Montauk (2012), which is about government projects conducted on Long Island to develop psychological warfare techniques. Stranger Things, he claims, is grounded in his ideas, and this is why the media outlets are talking about plagiarism.
People often confuse plagiarism with copyright or trademark violation. Plagiarism — that is, stealing ideas or using others’ ideas without credit — is certainly unethical, and it can get you stigmatized and even thrown out of universities. But it’s not illegal; it can’t get you thrown in jail or fined. If it could, then every single filmmaker, novelist, scientist, and academic scholar in the world would have to worry about being sued. None of our ideas are truly are own. What we craft with our ideas is what’s special and more unique.
The legal issue isn’t plagiarism, but copyright/trademark violation, and even here Kessler doesn’t have a case. His film Montauk is obviously copyrighted, but all that means is that the arrangements of particular shots in his film are copyrighted — like sequences of words in a book or the progression of one musical note to another in a song. The ideas in any film, book, or song aren’t protected, and again, if they were, everyone would be in trouble. Robert McCammon could be sued by Stephen King for “stealing” the ideas of The Stand for his own post-apocalyptic novel Swan Song.
Assume, for sake of argument, that the Duffer Brothers actually did use Kessler’s ideas in Montauk for the inspiration of the Hawkins Lab. (They deny this, claiming their ideas for Stranger Things trace organically all the way back to 2010.) That’s not illegal.
Kessler seems aware of this, and so he’s suing the Duffers not for copyright infringement, but rather for “breaking an implied contract”. This implied contract occurred (he says) on April 21, 2014, when he pitched his idea for a feature-length film to the Duffers at a party. In other words, he is claiming (1) that they all talked and then walked away thinking they had all committed to being partners in developing Kessler’s ideas, and (2) thus by failing to partner up with him, the Duffers broke their word by using his ideas on their own.
Proving his case — that everyone walked away from this casual meet thinking they’d committed to a partnership — is going to be a heavy lift for Kessler. I hope he loses. If he wins, it sets a horrible precedent. People won’t be able to have the most casual conversations without worrying about lawsuits or “implied contracts” in everything they say.