Simpsons Solicitors

A tale of a whale, a sparrow and a hamster …

May 3rd 2013

A recent decision in the US stands as a salutary case in not jumping to conclusions and taking legal action just because other people use ideas that are similar to yours.

In 1998, Joe Quirk published a novel – “Ultimate Rush” . The book about a roller-blading courier who became involved in what the judge stated were “perilous situations with criminals relating to the contents of packages he was delivering”. He later sold film rights to Warner Bros, but after a couple of draft screenplays had been written, Warner Bros abandoned the project, and Warner Bros’ option over the book expired.

In 2012, Mr Quirk went to the cinema, to see the film “Premium Rush”. The movie (produced by Sony Pictures) was about a bicycle courier pursued by a rogue cop who is trying to obtain the mysterious contents of a package the courier has been hired to deliver.

After seeing the film and becoming concerned about the similarities, Mr Quirk concluded that his rights had been infringed. He consequently launched legal action on the bases that:

  • contractual obligations to pay him (based on confidentiality) had been breached; and
  • his copyright had been infringed.

The judge, however, found against Mr Quirk on all claims, and granted summary judgement to Sony Pictures.

First, Mr Quirk’s novel had been published. While there were a number of other reasons why Mr Quirk’s claim failed in relation to the confidentiality aspect, the most fundamental was that, because the book (and all the ideas in the book) had been widely published by Mr Quirk himself, he couldn’t subsequently claim that the ideas in it were confidential and that the defendants were under any contractual right to pay for those ideas. The fact film rights had at one time been sold to Warner Bros and that they had produced draft screenplays became entirely irrelevant.

Second, while there are similarities between the book and the film, the judge found these to be at such an abstract level that it could not be said that there was any “substantial similarity” between the film or the script for the film and Mr Quirk’s book.

As the judge stated, “Copyright … protects expression, not ideas”.

The judge also decided that Mr Quirk consistently exaggerated and misstated the level of similarity between his book and the film, noting that “A blue whale is much like a hamster with respect to all the mammalian features they share. Yet a hamster is more like a sparrow than a whale …” . The judge consequently made the observation that whatever features are shared does not (in a copyright sense) make a hamster “substantially similar to either a whale or a sparrow”.

You can read the full judgement here:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/133896009/Quirk

This case is not the first – and probably won’t be the last – where someone has made a claim essentially based on publicly available ideas only, and rushed off to a court to be vindicated without really examining the strength of their case. In 2006, for example, there was a copyright claim made in relation to the HBO series “Six Feet Under” – that claim also abjectly failed and for the same reasons.

If you need advice as to whether or not someone has infringed your copyright – or advice as to whether or not you will need to get permission from someone else to use their material – contact Ian McDonald (Special Counsel, Copyright) or copyright lawyer Adam Simpson at Simpsons Solicitors.