In an essay on Macleans (“Is that my baby on the screen?“), writer Rebecca Eckler explains her decision to sue film director Judd Apatow. She believes that his film, Knocked Up, appropriates material from her book, Knocked Up: Confessions of a Hip Mother-to-be. Although I didn’t read the book and I haven’t seen the movie, the similarities Eckler describes do sound striking and specific:
The movie Knocked Up features a woman named Alison who becomes pregnant after getting drunk. While she gets drunk going out celebrating a promotion at work, I got drunk, and knocked up, celebrating at my engagement party. Both my book and the movie feature one night of passion and the nine months that follow. Fine. Whatever. But what got me was the fact that “Alison” was an up-and-coming television reporter; in my book I was an up-and-coming newspaper reporter.
There were other similarities that hit close to home. In my book, I have a best-friend- with-screaming-children named Ronnie, who I go to often for advice. In the movie version, Alison has a sister, named Debbie, with screaming children, who is her sounding board. Both “Alison” and I did numerous pregnancy tests. What also got my back up was that Ben, the man who gets Alison knocked up, is not only Jewish, but from Canada, like my man. (I still can’t figure out why the fact that someone was Canadian would add value to any movie.)
She also describes a particular off-color joke from her book and a similar joke that appears in the movie.
What Eckler doesn’t have is proof that Apatow read her book, even though it was published before Apatow sold his idea, a timeline that favors her claim. And because her story was out in the public sphere, she may be able to make a stronger case than an unpublished writer who claims her idea was stolen. The unpublished writer, however, may be able to prove a chain of events by which her material reached the desk of the alleged thief.
Despite the similarities between book and movie, however, I can’t help but think that Eckler’s experience isn’t all that unique. The setup is the most striking part, but from there on the events are, if not common to many expectant women, common to the vernacular of the Hollywood screenwriter (friend with screaming kids, awkwardness about having sex while pregnant, etc.). Furthermore, Eckler seems to place undue significance on the fact that the movie’s screenplay (do unpublished screenplays have covers now?) used the same image as her book’s cover: a pacifier wrapped around the stem of a martini glass. Unless film directors are now designing screenplay covers and movie posters now, that would seem to indict the art department, not the screenwriter.
Eckler may be right. Apatow may have read her book and mined it for ideas. But from everything I’ve read on the subject, it’s remarkably hard to prove infringement — you can’t copyright a scenario, only a specific expression of it, if I have it right. Eckler acknowledges that her suit is a long shot but says she’d feel worse if she didn’t try to do anything. Sounds to me like the legal maneuvering, barely begun, has already made her feel miserable enough. I’m not saying she’s not entitled to try to prove her case, or that it’s OK for filmmakers to steal from books. But some battles you lose merely by taking part.
Just ask the guys who sued Dan Brown.