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24 August 2006 @ 02:12 pm
Ellison v Cameron  
I am officially pissed off with Harlan Ellison and the legal system that allowed him to extort money and publicity from James Cameron. I mean, sure, boo hoo for James Cameron, the relatively small payout he had to make is surely not a drop in the ocean in the amount of money he has made from his films. But, that's beside the point. If it can happen to Cameron, it can happen to any writer.

Let me back up a bit, so that you know what I am going on about. I think Wikipedia can probably sum-up better than I can:

Some aspects of the story [of The Terminator] were sufficiently similar to two episodes of the TV series The Outer Limits — both episodes written by Harlan Ellison — that Ellison pursued legal action against Cameron. Cameron settled out of court and acknowledged Ellison's work in the film's credits. However, some time later, the credits were mysteriously taken out (rumored to have been removed by Cameron himself). Another lawsuit was filed until the credit was reinserted.

The episodes in question were called "Soldier" (which involves a specially-trained man accidentally sent back in time) and "Demon with a Glass Hand" (concerning a time traveler who suffers memory loss and relies on a computer chip implanted in his artificial hand to give him information about his mission while assassins sent from the future attempt to kill him). There is also some similarity between the concept of Skynet and the evil intelligence featured in Ellison's short story, "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream".

Yes, all three of these stories have some story elements in common with The Terminator. In fact, some of the similarities are quite striking. But how does that give Ellison the right to claim them as his own? Authors have been taking story elements from prior sources for centuries. Hell, I don't think Shakespeare wrote a single original story (an extreme example, perhaps).

Even if Cameron really did piece his film together from the elements in these three stories, I would have thought there was enough difference to nullify any claim of plagiarism. Cameron has maintained that his story is completely original, and not at all taken from Ellison's work. Still, as I say, if Cameron was borrowing from Ellison's work, what is wrong with that? Stories are meant to take inspirations from other stories.

If in The Terminator almost the same series of events happened as in one of these stories, then I think then and only then would Cameron have a case to answer. But that's simply not the case. Instead we have a few similarities here and there in what is essentially a completely different story.

But, here's what I would like to know - does Harlan Ellison acknowledge that his own stories are rip-offs of HG Wells? If The Time Machine was not in the public domain, would Ellison be happily paying royalties? And, on the flipside, why has Ellison not sued the creators of the film WarGames, which also shares a story element with the above short story?

There are very few original story elements out there - what matters is the final product, the complete crafted story. Even if that story is a pastiche of older elements, it is still crafting something new. Sure, there are some scenarios when an author has a legitimate case to answer for, but the proof is in the watching. After watching both these episodes, and reading the short story, I feel as though I have experienced four distinct stories (six when you add the other two Terminator films). I enjoyed all of them (although Terminator 3 much less so), and feel like there was very little doubling up. So, why does Harlan Ellison think he has the right to extort money from anyone who writes a story that is simply similar to his own? All writers of science fiction be on notice - Ellison is coming after you, because he owns your ideas.
Current Music: Richard O'Brien - Science Fiction/Double Feature
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Jacobyak_boy on August 24th, 2006 05:04 am (UTC)
It just annoys me that he is allowed to get away with this sort of shit.

You'd think that someone like Cameron would have the resources to take him to court and nail him to the wall.

Although, now that I think of it, probably not at the time of The Terminator.
Jacobyak_boy on August 24th, 2006 08:36 am (UTC)
And I know this story is nothing new (the film came out 22 years ago, after all). I've been aware of this legal action for quite some time, but I only just got the opportunity to see the episodes in question to make my own mind up.
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Jacobyak_boy on August 24th, 2006 05:51 am (UTC)

I think a point to note is that this case was settled out of court, so it's not entirely clear what a court judgement would have been. However, part of my problem with the legal system is that the slightest threat of massive payouts is often enough to force an unfair settlement.
escarpeescarpe on August 24th, 2006 06:02 am (UTC)
Obviously basic concepts are difficult to pin down, you could argue that HG Well's invented the idea of a Time Machine but did he? Who came up with the concept of traveling back in time? I would say that for the lawsuit to be vaild not only do story concepts have to have been lifted but story spicifc elements.
So the only way to judge that is to watch the episodes in question. Have you seen either of these stories?
I have "Demon with a glass hand" if your curious but I have had a devil of a time pinning down "Soldier".
Jacobyak_boy on August 24th, 2006 06:08 am (UTC)
Actually, there is at least one time machine story before Wells', but I went with Wells for the recognition factor. But, really, that's my point: who originally came up with these story ideas? And does that give that person ownership of these ideas?

What prompted this rant was that I just recently watched both Outer Limits episodes, in order to make up my own mind. I wouldn't have felt I could could rightly comment if I hadn't seen the episodes in question. At least the first two seasons of The Outer Limits are available on DVD (both these eps are from season 2), I got my copy from *ahem* another source.
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Jacobyak_boy on August 24th, 2006 08:32 pm (UTC)
Kind of like Jung's concept of the Collective Unconscious, except real.
Robet Éivaayvah on September 2nd, 2006 12:07 am (UTC)
This is more or less why I kind of take the side of The Da Vinci Code in its lawsuit. I'd rather not have copyright being inadvertently being used to protect ideas, which were deliberately excluded.

Also, I think people have been confusing copyright with patent. If you get a patent, you have an exclusive right to that kind of product. If you get a copyright, you have an exclusive right only to that specific product. Just because you're the first to make a story about robots, it doesn't earn you a monopoly on robots.
Jacobyak_boy on September 2nd, 2006 02:35 am (UTC)
Yeah, I agree. It's too easy to pre-judge a plagiarism case.
Prior to seeing for myself I had just assumed that Ellison had had a legitimate case.