When new media gains popularity, third parties often allege various forms of theft. For example, a popular new TV show will likely face a copyright infringement lawsuit over a plot element or character name. Sometimes these claims have merit, and the ideas behind the show stemmed from another’s creative work. However, for the most part, these claims don’t end up holding up in court and the allegations are dropped. Netflix’s hit show Stranger Things is no stranger to these allegations, and now faces another copyright infringement lawsuit.
Stranger Things, created by Matt and Ross Duffer, debuted in 2016 to immediate critical acclaim. In 2018, a third party named Charles Kessler filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Stranger Things. Kessler alleged that he met the Duffer brothers at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. Kessler alleges that they discussed the underlying idea of a small-town setting for a sci-fi show, which became Stranger Things. However, during discovery and prior to trial, documents surfaced showing that the Duffer brothers started creating the show in 2010. Kessler decided to drop the lawsuit at the advice of his own expert witness.
New Copyright Infringement Allegation Surfaces
Last week, yet another copyright infringement claim against Stranger Things surfaced. Irish Rover Entertainment alleged purported similarities between Stranger Things and a screenplay written by Jeffrey Kennedy. Interestingly, a link exists between the two projects – a concept artist named Aaron Sims worked with Kennedy; Sims subsequently worked on concept art for the first two seasons of Stranger Things.
While the latest claim appears stronger than Kessler’s 2018 lawsuit, copyright infringement claims are notoriously difficult to prove. For example, the lawsuit alleges that the works share “plot, sequence, characters, theme, dialogue, mood, and setting, as well as copyrighted concept art.” However, many artistic works share plot elements, themes, moods, and settings. Copyrights protect expressions of ideas, not the ideas themselves. As such, while works may share some elements, there must be evidence of access to the prior work and actual copying to constitute infringement. Courts often utilize a substantial similarity test to determine whether a viewer would believe that the works are related; such a subjective test is difficult to prove.
For Netflix’s part, the company denies any copyright infringement related to Stranger Things and refused to settle the case. Instead, Netflix believes the Duffer brothers and will contest the lawsuit. We’ll have to watch to see if this case has more traction than the 2018 allegation.