I’m not privy to the thoughts of smart, creative people, but if I had to guess there are many ideas and stories bouncing around at all times, and enough creatives in the world to guarantee that there is going to be overlap between ideas, or similar ideas that occur concurrently, without any theft or misappropriation. Who could forget the summer of Dante’s Peak and Volcano, or the very next summer of Armageddon and Deep Impact? The point is that coincidences happen, and that we had a real taste for natural disaster movies in the 90s.
Not everyone is so convinced about the nature of coincidence, it seems. From Techdirt comes the story of a high school English teacher and novelist who sued Netflix over its hit show Outer Banks, which is about a group of teens that find a map to buried treasure. According to Kevin Wooten, the show bears too much similarity to his book “Pennywise: The Hunt for Blackbeard’s Treasure!” and was seeking damages from the streaming service and the show’s creators.
Except that it’s not an entirely novel concept; kids hunting for treasure is immediately going to evoke The Goonies for scores of Gen X-ers and “geriatric millennials” like myself, and buried treasure as a trope goes back centuries at this point. None of those works were infringing upon the others, because those sorts of broad strokes of a story aren’t protected by copyright. If “Outer Banks” had pulled plot points and created similar characters to what was depicted in Wooten’s book, he’d have a case; as it stands, his argument seems to be that he holds some sort of claim to the idea of treasure hunting.
And his story certainly does diverge from what Netflix created. According to Hayley Fowler of the News & Observer, Wooten’s book centers on a professor seeking the treasure, which includes the Holy Grail, to keep it out of the hands of the novel’s villain, in this case a scientist whose quest was to disprove the divinity of Jesus. (It’s unclear whether the Grail-seeking professor had a whip or fedora.) The show, on the other hand, features cool and undoubtedly attractive young people out to find one member of the group’s father, stumbling upon treasure along the way. So, not all that similar.
Not that any lack of substantive similarity has ever stopped any number of lawsuits against other shows and movies. To be sure, there are undoubtedly good cases brought by many writers and creators with a legitimate case that their work was ripped off to create something for which they received neither credit nor compensation; after all, it’s Hollywood. But cases like this one do nothing but waste the time of everyone involved and make people more skeptical of those legitimate cases that are brought.