Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Desist, In Time," Said the Copyfight Man

According to its official website, the upcoming film In Time is a science fictional/crime story that takes place in a world "where time is money - literally":
When Will Salas is falsely accused of murder, he must figure out a way to bring down a system where time is money – literally – enabling the wealthy to live forever while the poor, like Will, have to beg, borrow, and steal enough minutes to make it through another day.
Here is the trailer for the film:



Is this an intriguing premise? Well, the idea that "time is money - literally" is an interesting one, I guess. But what are they doing with it? Because the movie hasn't come out yet and I haven't seen it, I don't know. But that synopsis, and that trailer, don't look very promising. Very often these science fictional films take simplistic dim-bulbed views of their dystopian futures -- a fine example was the pathetic "Children of Men," which I very graciously took apart here. And remember the movie "I, Robot"? Where were the human union members to protest the rollout of cheap robot labor?

Does In Time show the hordes of protesters that would line our streets against this whole "time is money" idea? Today we have a number of advocates for the poor; do they show up at all in this movie? And, why should "the poor" have to "beg" for more time? Wouldn't the fabulously wealthy in this dystopian society want to keep poor people around to do all the crummy jobs that the rich jerks don't want to do? You could keep poor people 25 years old indefinitely, and in top physical shape for just that purpose.

What's the "middle class" like in this world?

The fact that this film comes from the writer of "The Truman Show" and "Gattaca" doesn't exactly excite me. Those films both featured intriguing premises that were undermined by underdeveloped characters and situations. (Yeah, I know, I'm in the minority.)

Speaking of those premises. Didn't "The Truman Show" seem kind of familiar to you? Just a little bit? And wasn't "Gattaca" just Brave New World by way of Raymond Chandler? It has always seemed to me that the director, Andrew Niccol, has worn his influences on his sleeve, so to speak. And now, he's being sued.

The famed speculative fiction author Harlan Ellison, one of the better writers of the 20th century (full disclosure: I am a former member of the Harlan Ellison Recording Collection), is suing Mr. Niccol, the production company Regency, and the distributor 20th Century Fox. He's seeking to prevent the film's release and destruction of all prints of the film.
Ellison says the new film is based on his multiple prize-winning 1965 work, "Repent, Harlequin! Said The Ticktockman" which the complaint calls one of the most famous and widely published science fiction short stories of all time.
I actually hadn't read "Repent!" in about 15 years, so I went back and re-read it today. It's a fine story. Mr. Ellison could write. Back when I was in college I trolled the used bookstores, looking for copies of his works (I think the only of his books that were in print back then were Angry Candy, Mefisto in Onyx, and Harlan Ellison's Watching). I loved his stuff, although I remember having a hard time getting through Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled, Spider Kiss, and Web of the City. Since then my taste has changed-- Mr. Ellison is a bit florid for me now, but he is undoubtedly a tremendous writer. "Repent!" is definitely worth your time-- if it's true that it's "one of the most famous and widely published science fiction short stories of all time," then it is worthy of that distinction. (Hey! the back cover of my Ace paperback edition of Paingod and Other Delusions makes a similar claim: "["Repent!" is] one of the most reprinted and widely taught stories in the English language".)



"Repent!" tells the story of a dystopian future in which being late will seriously cost you:
"If he was ten minutes late, he lost ten minutes of his life. An hour was proportionately worth more revocation. If someone was consistently tardy, he might find himself on a Sunday night, receiving a communique from the Master Timekeeper that his time had run out, and he would be "turned off" at high noon on Monday, please straighten your affairs, sir, madame, or bisex."
(p. 35 of the Ace edition)
This is a world in which the government controls every aspect of your life, down to the amount of time you have. In this world, the Harlequin commits acts of rebellion designed to disrupt the clockwork world. The Master Timekeeper (who is derisively known as the Ticktockman) is forced to pull people out of their regimented schedules to fight him.

It's one of those "it could have been written today" kind of stories. According to Mr. Ellison, people have tried to get him to sell the movie rights, but he's resisted up to now:
For years, according to Ellison, he has resisted producer interest in adapting this story into film, but in late 2010, Ellison's company, The Kilimanjaro Corporation, entered into an agreement with a third party to create a screenplay based on the story so that it could be sold or licensed to a Hollywood studio. Now, Ellison says that In Time jeopardizes an official film adaptation of "Repent Harlequin!"

Ellison says the similarity between the two works is "obvious" and quotes critics such as Richard Roeper who have attended advanced screenings and seem to believe that In Time is based on "Repent Harlequin!"
(I would like to point out that Richard Roeper, alleged "film critic" and former co-host of Roger Ebert's old program, is a dimwit and probably gets his left hand confused with his right foot just before sticking it in his mouth.)

The ideas animating the two works appear to be similar. A dystopian future with an all-powerful government entity that controls people's lives, right down to the amount of time they have to live. However, the whole "time is money" thing, in which time is used a unit of currency, seems to be specific to the film. It's a big part of the film, actually.

In that way, it seems to be more similar to a story by Phantom and Mandrake the Magician Creator Lee Falk, called "Time is Money." According to this website (at which you can actually read Mr. Falk's story), "Time is Money" was first published in 1975 (ten years after Mr. Ellison's story!) in "Playboy" magazine. In "Time is Money," a man apparently misplaced about a month of his life, and has to track down the missing time in the few hours he has left. I won't "spoil" it (you can't "spoil" art!), but where he finds his time is pretty amusing.

It's also similar to a short film called "The Price of Life" which aired on Showtime circa 1987. Or, rather, the Showtime short was similar to Mr. Falk's story. Time as currency.

The full text of Mr. Ellison's lawsuit can be found via Deadline Hollywood. I'm no lawyer, and I haven't seen the movie, so I don't know how much of a case Mr. Ellison really has. His list of similarities between the two works seems to me to be alternately convincing and stretching it. (But then, Mr. Ellison is a compelling writer.) According to the US Copyright office:
Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work.
What is the difference between "influence" and "theft"? Art is supposed to build on what has come before. It must to survive. William Shakespeare appropriated almost everything he wrote from other sources. Does every single story that's published or movie that's produced in the western world have to acknowledge The Odyssey in its closing credits or its back cover? Mr. Niccol is an artist. I'm not a huge fan of the two of his films that I've seen, but I can't deny his talent.

Interestingly, that Deadline link in the paragraph above refers to Mr. Ellison as a "Copyright Curmudgeon." This is apparently in reference to his fight over the film The Terminator:
According to Marc Shapiro's biography of [James Cameron], a visiting journalist asked where he had gotten the idea for it, and Cameron said, "Oh, I ripped off a couple of Harlan Ellison stories." Shapiro also quotes Ellison as saying he found the "smoking gun" in a Starlog article in which Cameron was quoted as saying he got the idea for The Terminator from "a couple of Outer Limits segments." The episodes in question had both been written by Ellison. He sued and received a settlement of $400,000, along with a story credit on all theatrical and home-video prints of the film.
Or maybe it's in reference to his fight over his famous "City on the Edge of Forever" episode of "Star Trek":
“And please make sure to remember, at the moment some Studio mouthpiece calls me a mooch, and says I’m only pursuing this legal retribution to get into their ‘deep pockets,’ tell’m Ellison snarled back, ‘F- - - -in’-A damn skippy!’ I’m no hypocrite. It ain’t about the ‘principle,’ friend, its about the MONEY! Pay Me! Am I doing this for other writers, for Mom (still dead), and apple pie? Hell no! I’m doing it for the 35-year-long disrespect and the money!

“The arrogance, the pompous dismissive imperial manner of those who ‘have more important things to worry about,’ who’ll have their assistant get back to you, who don’t actually read or create, who merely ‘take’ meetings, and shuffle papers – much of which is paper money denied to those who actually did the manual labor of creating those dreams – they refuse even to notice...until you jam a Federal lawsuit in their eye. To hell with all that obfuscation and phony flag-waving: they got my money. Pay me and pay off all the other writers from whom you’ve made hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars...from OUR labors...just so you can float your fat asses in warm Bahamian waters.
Or maybe it's in reference to his claim that Cormac McCarthy's book The Road is a ripoff of his story "A Boy and His Dog":
A friend said “oh gee, you should sell it [his typewriter], they sold Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter.” And I said, “yeah, Cormac McCarthy who ripped off my story “A Boy and His Dog” to do “The Road.” I said how much did they get $20?”
I do like the idea of a writer using copyright law -- which was essentially created by big corporations in collusion with the government to help protect corporate interests at the expense of independent artists -- to fight a big corporation. But does Mr. Ellison really have a case? Did enough of "Repent!" make it into In Time to make it legally actionable? I guess if all copies of the film aren't destroyed, and the film makes its release date, we'll find out.

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