Harlan Ellison Sues Claiming Fox's 'In Time' Rips Off Sci-Fi Story (Exclusive)

In Time - Movie Poster - P - 2011

Science fiction legend Harlan Ellison is attempting to kill a high-profile movie that is scheduled to come out in theaters next month. The Hugo award-winning writer has filed a lawsuit against New Regency and director Andrew Niccol over the 20th Century Fox-distributed film, In Time, starring Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried and Cillian Murphy. He is demanding an injunction to prevent the film's October 28 release and the disposal of all copies of the film.

Ellison filed his lawsuit on Wednesday in California federal court with allegations of copyright infringement on the part of the producers of In Time, including Niccol, who is renowned for his sci-fi films including The Truman Show, Gattaca, and S1mOne.

Copyright lawsuits in Hollywood are certainly plentiful, but rarely successful because plaintiffs typically struggle to meet the high burden of showing substantial similarity. Will Ellison's case be any different?

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.

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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!"

Both works are said to take place in a "dystopian corporate future in which everyone is allotted a specific amount of time to live." In both works, government authorities known as a "Timekeeper" track the precise amount of time each citizen has left.

The complaint goes on to list similarities in the features of the universe as well as the plot surfaces -- the manipulation of time an individual can live, the type of death experienced by those whose time runs out, rebellion by story protagonists, and so forth.

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Ellison restricts his charges to basic descriptions here, eschewing a comparison of dialogue, for example. It's hard to get a read whether he's seen the new film, but since copyright law protects expression and not ideas, he could face a hurdle in proving illegal misappropriation unless the complaint is further amended.

Then again, since both the author and work are renowned, he'll likely overcome a pitfall that trips up other copyright plaintiffs in offering a theory about how the defendants had access to his work.

The lawsuit names Regency, Niccol, and anonymous John Does as defendants. Fox isn't explicitly named, but the prayer for relief includes a demand that the distributor be subject to an injunction.

Besides the injunction remedy, Ellison is demanding all profits from the allegedly copyright infringing material. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of The Kilimanjaro Corporation by attorney Adam Thurston at Drinker Biddle & Reath.

We've reached out to New Regency and if we hear anything, we'll update.

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner