Charlie Kessler, the writer and producer of Montauk and a feature film script entitled The Montauk Project, has filed a complaint in the Los Angeles Superior County Court against Matt and Ross Duffer, the brothers behind Stranger Things. The 8-page complaint asserts a single count of breach of implied contract, alleging that the Duffer brothers improperly utilized the ideas and concepts Kessler shared with them in 2014 for the production of Stranger Things.
Kessler allegedly met the Duffer brothers at a premier party at the Tribeca Films Festival in April 2014. There, Kessler disclosed information to the brothers regarding Montauk and The Montauk Project. The complaint alleges that the Duffer brothers “misappropriated, used, and exploited” Kessler’s concepts, story, and ideas from Montauk and The Montauk Project.
Kessler’s Montauk and The Montauk Project are science fiction stories based on an actual conspiracy theory about psychological experiments being conducted in the town of Montauk, New York. Montauk is aptly located near Camp Hero, an abandoned military base. When a young boy named Michael suddenly awakens in the middle of the night is drawn to the lifeless radar tower on the base of Camp Hero, the tower lights up and he disappears in a flash of light and smoke. With Michael’s sudden disappearance, it’s up to “a cop with a haunted past” named Steve to find him.
In the meantime, a secretive government-run project, The Montauk Project, is supposedly conducting experiments on children at Camp Hero. It’s rumored that the project is aimed to create psychic weapons, portals to an alien world, and children with enhanced thoughts and abilities.
It is revealed that Michael has been given paranormal psychic abilities through the secret government experimentation. When he is angry, Michael can control the environment around him. As a result of his frustration with the experiments performed on via The Montauk Project, a space-time portal is opened up above Camp Hero and Michael’s consciousness creates a monster in the real-world.
The short film, Montauk, premiered in 2012 at the Hamptons Film Festival and was registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. The feature film script for The Montauk Project was also registered.
Kessler alleges that when he disclosed the details of the story to the Duffer brothers in 2014, an implied contract existed between them according to a well-established custom in the entertainment industry. The expectation, he claims, was that the Duffer brothers would not disclose, use, or exploit any of the ideas Kessler shared with them without his permission, without giving him credit, or without providing him with compensation of some kind.
Kessler’s complaint demands restitution damages (payment in the amount of money made by the Duffer brothers from the use of his ideas), general damages, special damages, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and costs, and interest. Additionally, the complaint requests that the court order the destruction of all of the materials created by the Duffer brothers that are based on Kessler’s ideas and concepts.
While I don’t think that Kessler has a terribly strong case, it’s hard to argue against the fact that there are a few similarities between Kessler’s works and Stranger Things. Both of the concepts are based on the interaction between an abandoned government lab, the paranormal, and the curiosity of children. There are also similarities in the character archetypes in both Stranger Things and Montauk, including a child that has been experimented on and given paranormal abilities as well as a gritty cop with a troubled past.
The concept of the weaponization of children through the influence of government experiments, however, is not a new one. Stephen King’s Firestarter, for example, was adapted into a 1984 sci-fi horror film about two college students who took part in a government-sponsored experiment and ended up with telepathic abilities. The couple ended up having a daughter with pyrokineses. The film follows the government’s interference with her and her parents’ lives.
There’s a concept in copyright law called scènes à faire – an idea can only be expressed in a certain number of ways. Literally, the phrase refers to a scene that must be done in order to express a certain concept in a genre. In this case, for example, the concept of nosebleeds as a result of using or experiencing paranormal or activity is prominent in Stranger Things, Montauk, and Firestarter. These common elements in creative works aren’t protectable on their own, as they are essentially mandatory to the genre of science fiction and the expression of it at this point.
Perhaps the abandoned lab, the idea of paranormal government experimentation on children, and the concept the physical manifestation of thoughts into a monster are just part of the science fiction and horror genres at their core. Stranger Things likely has enough of its own creative, protectable elements that makes it substantially different from Montauk to keep it safe from (literal) destruction as Kessler calls for in his request for relief, but we won’t find out until the brothers file an answer or decide to settle this one out of court.
Don’t be scared thinking season three of Stranger Things won’t come out because of this. This lawsuit should disappear as quick as Barb did.
Author, Caroline Womack, is a 2L at Quinnipiac University School of Law and primarily studies intellectual property law, focusing on video game and internet law.