The estate of the great science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is suing the makers of the 2011 Matt Damon film Adjustment Bureau–which was based on Dick’s 1953 story “The Adjustment Team.” Dick’s estate wants millions in back-end royalties from the film. Meanwhile, the film’s distribution company, Media Rights Capital, seems to think, despite already having a deal in place with Dick’s estate, the story is in the public domain.
The suit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, claims Nolfi approached the estate in 2001 seeking rights to The Adjustment Team, Dick’s 1953 story about a group of men who “adjust” the lives of ordinary citizens. The estate agreed to license the story at a “bargain” rate of $25,000 per year, but in exchange, Nolfi said he would make “substantial payments” to the trust if the movie ever happened. These payments totalled several million dollars when budget and box office bonuses are factored in, according to the suit.
Eight years later, Nolfi set the movie up as a writing and directing vehicle for himself at Media Rights Capital with Damon starring and Universal Pictures releasing. But a month after the film was released in March 2011, Nolfi and MRC allegedly said they discovered “an issue with the copyright chain of title for Adjustment Team” that the defendants now claim allows them to make the movie without paying the trust anything. The suit calls this theory absurd: “So, despite having gotten their benefits of the bargain, defendants seek to deprive the trust of its side of the deal,” the complaint alleges.
We’re not going to pretend to know anything about copyright law. But it sure seems like Dick’s estate has this one nailed. The filmmakers wanted to wait until the story was in the public domain, but they didn’t want anyone else swooping in and making a film at the same time. So they cut a deal with the estate to fend off rival production companies, waited a few years, and then tried to back out. Again, seems cut and dry to us. But what do we know?