IP Disputes Are Stranger Things Than Fiction: Can You Rip Off A ‘True’ Conspiracy Theory?

“Ultimately, Kessler faces a significant uphill battle. Prevailing on copyright claims will require proof that the Duffers appropriate specific elements of Kessler’s own manifestation(s),…”


 by: Patrick Anderson, Chief Technology Officer | May 16, 2018

Writers Matt and Ross Duffer stole the idea behind the hit Netflix show Stranger Things from filmmaker Charlie Kessler according to a lawsuit filed last month in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Kessler produced the 2011 short film Montauk, about an alleged government mind control conspiracy conducted by the Department of Energy commonly referred to as “The Montauk Project.”

According to his complaint, Kessler met the Duffers at a premier party during the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014. During the party, Kessler claims that a script for a feature film based on the Montauk short, and the film itself, were both presented under an “implied contract.” In addition to an unspecified amount of money, Kessler’s lawsuit effectively asks for the show to be canceled and existing episodes to be taken down.

While yet to formally respond, the Duffers have, thus far, not admitted to ever meeting Kessler. However, the similarity between the plot of Stranger Things and the so-called Montauk Project is no secret. Numerous articles are devoted to the supposedly “true” story behind Stranger Things. According to the theory, the US government conducted a series of projects in Montauk, New York between 1971-1983 to develop psychological warfare techniques. These secret experiments allegedly involved the kidnapping of thousands of people, including children. Reportedly, the Duffers sold the show to Netflix under the working title “Montauk” before ultimately changing the location to the fictional “Hawkins, Indiana.”

However, the Duffers publicly provided a number of documents in their defense in an effort to demonstrate that their work on the show predated the alleged meeting with Kessler. TMZ claims to have received e-mails showing discussion of the “Montauk” series dated from 2010, along with a Google document dated October 2013. Also working against Kessler is the allegedly “true” and commonly-told folk nature of the Montauk Project. His lawsuit even acknowledges a 2014 documentary called Montauk Chronicles. A search of Copyright records for titles including “Montauk Project” reveals six different registrations, going back as far as 1991, not including Kessler’s own short film.

Copyright protects the manifestation of an idea, not the idea itself. Demonstrated by the number of different ways the Montauk story has been told, many different people can, even simultaneously, arrive at the same idea. While a private contract could protect information beyond what is covered by intellectual property laws, Kessler admits there is no written agreement. The statute of limitations on breach of a verbal contract in California is two years.

While Stranger Things did not premier until July 2016, Netflix first announced that the Duffer’s “Montauk” supernatural drama was acquired in 2015. In addition, Kessler’s IMDb credits list his work on production crews on Netflix shows Daredevil and Jessica Jones back in 2015. Interestingly, Kessler’s Netflix series production crew credits end in 2017 with limited work on the Marvel shows Iron Fist, The Defenders, and The Punisher.

Ultimately, Kessler faces a significant uphill battle. Prevailing on copyright claims would require proof that the Duffers appropriate specific elements of Kessler’s own manifestation(s), and his contract claims may very well come down to when, precisely, he knew or should have known about the alleged breach.

Yet the wheels of justice turn slowly. The Duffers have not yet formally answered the complaint, and the court has set a date of August 20th for a case management conference. Fans of Stranger Things, however, have not been shy about making their feelings known. Outraged at the possibility of the lawsuit resulting in the shows cancellation, Kessler claims he’s received numerous death threats, prompting him to amend his demands, limiting himself to only monetary damages. Thus, fans can rest easy knowing that Kessler’s suit will, at best, simply further divide up the cash cow that is Stranger Things.

Image courtesy of: IMDB’s site

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