Sony Says No Protection for Spaniards Who "Blurted Out" Time-Travel Drama

Timeless - Still - H - 2016
Joe Lederer/NBC

Sony Pictures is turning back the clock to rehash one of its favorite legal arguments.

The studio is defending a lawsuit that accuses it of ripping off the Spanish drama El Ministerio del Tiempo to create the NBC time-travel drama Timeless. Specifically, Onza Partners alleges it met with a partner at the Gersh Agency at an international television conference in April 2015 and secured help in packaging an American version of the show. Now, the Spanish producer is suing for copyright infringement and breach of implied contract.

The copyright claims are fairly straightforward. A judge will have to decide whether allegations of appropriated expression are sufficiently similar enough to move the case past a motion to dismiss.

On Wednesday, Sony, NBCU and other defendants called the judge's attention to the fact that time travel is a "well-established genre" while arguing that plaintiffs can't establish the two shows "embody anything more than generic similarities between two works in the time-travel genre."

Onza contends that both works "center on a national government’s secret efforts to utilize time travel to thwart undesired changes to past events," while the Timeless producers emphasize such differences as "no large number of potential enemy time travelers, no large number of agents who have lived in earlier periods of time, no special government department that existed (much less for more than 500 years to stop persons from traveling through time), no persons from the past traveling to the present and no methods of assisting the team while they are in the past."

Then, there's the breach of implied contract claim.

Onza alleges that it was understood by all parties when it got an agent involved, handed off a DVD for the purpose of introducing its proprietary television series format and began negotiating with Sony for the right to an American version that it was all conditioned upon an implied promise not to make use of the ideas underlying the format without a full and formal executed agreement.

To rebut this, Sony returns to a lawsuit it faced over the 2012 film Premium Rush, which triggered a similar implied contract claim from author Joe Quirk for allegedly using his 1998 novel without compensation. In that case, a judge came to the conclusion that an author who widely publishes a book is similar to a man who blurts out an idea. This man can't have any expectation of bargaining for payment of that idea.

Now, Sony is looking to extend this proposition to television, arguing that something widely disseminated to the public was in fact "blurted out."

"Because Plaintiffs broadcast their Format to the world before allegedly making any contact or contract with Defendants, they cannot maintain an implied in fact claim for the use of ideas after broadcast," states the motion to dismiss (read here).

Does the fact that the idea was blurted out in Spanish across the ocean matter? Only someone with a ship to the future can answer.

The plaintiff is represented by attorney Devin McRae, the defendants by attorney Louis Petrich.