Well, here’s a plot that apparently isn’t so novel as to wheel its way into automatic copyright protection: a bunch of bad guys try to hunt down a messenger because the athletically gifted fellow is supposed to deliver something of value and skulduggery surrounds. A U.S. District Court in San Francisco granted summary judgment in favor of Sony Pictures against author Joe Quirk, who had asserted copyright infringement and breach of implied contract claims over his novel about a derring do delivery guy in a big city and whether it unfairly got made into the 2012 movie Premium Rush.
Ultimate Rush, Quirk’s book, is set in San Francisco and follows a rollerblading messenger tangled up with criminals because of people he’s associated with and the packages he is delivering. Quirk wrote and published his work in 1998, then deciding it would be ideal for film adaptation. He secured a book-option deal with Warner Bros., which had two screenplays written based on it. But the project, like many, stalled and was not produced.
Then, in 2010, Sony Pictures went into production with its film Premium Rush. It is set in Manhattan and tells of a bike messenger hunted by rogue cops seeking a package he has been hired to deliver. Quirk heard about the film, asserted it was an unauthorized adaptation of his novel and he sued for copyright infringement, naming the screenwriter and director. He also made a claim of breach of implied contract by parties for failing to pay for use of his work.
The court ruled in Sony’s favor on the infringement action, finding Quirk’s claim was flawed. The author and counsel did not pursue a substantial similarity analysis, instead, basing their argument on an expert’s declaration that Premium Rush was an adaptation of Ultimate Rush. Even if that could be proved, U.S. District Judge Robert Seeborg noted, that would not automatically lead to liability because copyright, he said, “protects expression, not ideas.” When applying the substantial similarity test, he said, “The two works differ greatly in many large and small details as well as in their overall mood, style, and structure.”
The judge also ruled that that Quirk’s breach of implied-contract claim also lacked legs. Desny v. Wilder lays out the principle of an implied contractual right to compensation when a writer submits material to a producer; the writer has an understanding that the will be paid if the producer uses the concept. “Even assuming a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that commonalities among elements found in the novel, the movie, and the intervening scripts demonstrate that Premium Rush was created by a process of adaptation from Ultimate Rush,” the judge said, “Quirk still lacks evidence that defendants utilized any of his ideas under circumstances giving rise to ‘bilateral expectation of payment.” Quirk published his ideas in his novel and exposed them then to the public. That precluded his later claim that it was implied that defendants were bound to pay for the ideas’ uses, regardless of how they were exposed to them.