'Adjustment Bureau' Case Takes Strange Turn With Dueling Lawsuits

UPDATED: Media Rights Capital files suit in federal court over the 2011 film, a day after the Phillip K. Dick estate refiles its own case in state court.
Andrew Schwartz/Universal

The legal battle between the estate of late author Philip K. Dick and producers of the 2011 film The Adjustment Bureau has taken another odd turn.

A day after the Dick estate refiled its lawsuit over profits from the Matt Damon film in state court, producer Media Rights Capital has struck back with its own suit in federal court seeking a declaration that rights to the Dick story that formed the basis for the movie had fallen into the public domain.

Read the Complaint Here

Confused? Here's the backstory:

As we first reported in October, the estate of the late sci-fi author sued MRC and filmmaker George Nolfi in federal court claiming they were refusing to pay millions of dollars in royalties because they believed the story that formed the basis for the film was in the public domain. The Dick estate claimed Nolfi approached it in 2001 seeking rights to The Adjustment Team, Dick's 1953 story about a group of men who "adjust" the lives of ordinary citizens. The estate agreed to license the story, with Nolfi saying he would make "substantial payments" to the trust if the movie ever got made. 

Years later, Nolfi and MRC exercised an option to produce the movie for Universal. But a month after the film was released in March 2011, Nolfi and MRC claimed they discovered that Adjustment Team was in the public domain, which should have allowed them to make the movie without paying the trust anything.

MRC and Nolfi claimed the story had first been published in an periodical called Orbit Science Fiction in September 1954. The Dick estate claimed that the 1954 publication was a mistake (even though it was apparently authorized by Dick's longtime agent) and that the actual first publication came in 1955. The difference between publication in 1954 and publication in 1955 is huge because it would mean that, under federal law, the story fell into public domain before the Dick estate filed for a copyright renewal in 1983. (He died in 1982.)

A judge later dismissed key claims in the case from federal court, prompting the estate to drop the lawsuit entirely. The trust re-filed the case Monday in state court as a claim for breach of contract and other causes of action.

But MRC lawyers Michael Kump and Jeremiah Reynolds still want the judge to rule on the public domain issue, so now we have dueling lawsuits in state and federal court.

In filing the suit, MRC provided THR the following statement:

“When the Philip K. Dick Trust filed its initial lawsuit in federal court, we looked forward to the Court ruling on whether the underlying story to the “Adjustment Bureau” is in the public domain. We were disappointed when the Trust dropped its lawsuit before the Court could reach a decision. The issue remains an important one, so today MRC filed an action in federal court asking the court to rule on the public domain issue. We look forward to a prompt resolution of this issue.”

E-mail: Matthew.Belloni@thr.com

Twitter: @THRMattBelloni