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Science fiction, legal reality

Sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick's heirs battle Hollywood over the rights to the 2011 Matt Damon film "The Adjustment Bureau."

November 27, 2011|Michael Hiltzik
  • Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in 'The Adjustment Bureau'
Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in 'The Adjustment Bureau' (Andrew Schwartz / Universal…)

Plot outline for a Philip K. Dick story:

Hollywood buys film rights to obscure short story by famous author. Makes movie. Movie makes money. Producers then claim they never needed to buy rights in the first place. Demand their money back.

Emblematic Philip K. Dick story elements: Attempt to turn back time and murkiness of reality. Extra mind-bending plot twist: Author of original story is named Philip K. Dick.

As Laura Dick Coelho, one of the late author's daughters, told me: "Everything in the Philip K. Dick world is complicated."

She was talking specifically about the personal life of her father — she's the offspring of the third of his five marriages. But her observation applies well to the dispute over the 2011 Matt Damon film "The Adjustment Bureau," which was based on "Adjustment Team," a short story Dick wrote in the 1950s.

If you haven't heard of Philip K. Dick, you're at least familiar with his work. He produced a huge corpus of visionary fiction before his death in 1982, including stories that became the basis for the films "Blade Runner," "Minority Report" and "Total Recall."

The Dick estate, which is managed by Coelho, 51, and her half-sister Isa Dick Hackett, 44, optioned the film rights to "Adjustment Team" to writer/director George Nolfi in 2001 for $25,000. Nolfi, who subsequently wrote the screenplay and directed the retitled film version, had transferred the rights to Media Rights Capital, an independent studio. The producers exercised the option by paying the estate $1.4 million, with at least $500,000 more due once the film achieved its break-even point.

But the rest was never paid. Media Rights Capital says it has learned that "Adjustment Team" first appeared in a cheap pulp sci-fi mag in 1954 and that the copyright was never renewed. That means the story has been in the public domain since 1982 and is available for anyone to exploit for free, like a play by Shakespeare.

Along with refusing to pay the remaining $500,000, Media Rights is demanding return of the money it already laid out, according to the sisters.

In a lawsuit it filed last month in Los Angeles federal court, the Dick estate contends that the 1954 publication doesn't count — Dick didn't know about the publication in advance, hadn't authorized it and wasn't paid for it. The estate maintains that the story's first authorized publication came in a 1973 anthology and that the copyright dates from then and remains valid. It's asking for the unpaid $500,000 and any other money the producers may owe.

Dick's daughters say that Nolfi and the producers had plenty of time to verify the copyright before making the picture, and that in signing the original deal they effectively acknowledged that the rights were authentic. (Nolfi's contract awards him adaptation rights to the story "throughout the universe," which tells you that sometimes legal boilerplate has a visionary component all its own.)

The family suggests that because the film became a success — having racked up $128 million in worldwide gross on a production cost of just over $50 million, plus DVD sales and the potential for a television spinoff — the producers are just trying to wriggle out of a costly obligation.

Media Rights won't comment on the copyright dispute beyond its formal answer to the lawsuit, in which it says it's up to the estate to prove that the original publication was unauthorized.

In any event, Dick's heirs say they gave the producers their full cooperation during the film's development stage and after.

"They asked us for feedback on the script," says Hackett, who adds that the estate is always concerned that a film adaptation be "faithful to the spirit" of her father's work. Her name appears in the film's credits as an executive producer.

The producers "really wanted our buy-in on the project," she says, perhaps because they thought the estate's implicit endorsement of the movie would help line up stars and give the project some pizazz in the eyes of Philip K. Dick's legions of fans.

None of this would rise beyond garden-variety Hollywood accounting shenanigans were it not for the identity and life story of the original author.

Dick was an outstandingly prolific writer who labored in poverty for most of a three-decade literary career. The breadth and quality of his oeuvre were scarcely known to the public until the release of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," which was based on Dick's 1968 novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and came out four months after his death.

Since then, his recognition as a science-fiction giant has spread. His books have been turned into hit movies including 1990's "Total Recall" — from the 1966 novelette "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" — which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. "Minority Report," from a 1956 short story, was directed by Steven Spielberg. A three-volume collection of his novels was brought out by the prestigious Library of America in 2009.

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