The Story Which Didn't Inspire the Film 'In Time' (and Vice Versa)

Late last year I discussed why Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Road didn't rip off Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog," despite comments Harlan made to that effect. My basic point was that copyright doesn't protect ideas, a fact which is well grounded in copyright law.

Well in a case of turn around is fair play, I've received several emails lately asking if Andrew Niccol's new SF film In Time ripped off my story "Millisent Ka Plays in Realtime." Short answer: No. Longer answer: This appears to be a case of two writers coming up with an idea independently of each other.

Here are the details: "Millisent Ka Plays in Realtime" deals with a future world where the currency is time. At birth each person is injected with artificial chromosomes which store massive amounts of data; when you purchase something, instead of paying with money people pay a time debt against the coming years of their life. Because most people are deeply in debt, they live as vassals to the lords of time, who buy and sell people's lifespans the way today's stock traders buy and sell companies.

Here's the summary for Andrew Niccol's In Time: "In the not-too-distant future the aging gene has been switched off. To avoid overpopulation, time has become the currency and the way people pay for luxuries and necessities. The rich can live forever, while the rest try to negotiate for their immortality."

So obviously there are similaries between the film and my story. Both use time as a currency, which benefits the rich while the average person is reduced to living like temporal slaves. There are also many other similarities. As the film's trailer shows, the time remaining in one's life is stamped on the arm and people can transfer time from one to another. In my story, a similar setup occurs with "time debt," which is recorded on the arm and can also be transferred between people. The lords of time in my story also age very slowly, similar to what happens in the film.

So I totally understand why people who read my story wondered if the film ripped off my ideas – and I'm equally certain once the film is released I'll receive emails stating the reverse. However, a quick look at the recent history of both my story and the film suggests neither of us knew of the other's work on the idea of time as a currency.

For example, "Millisent Ka Plays in Realtime" was published in the December 2010 issue of the British SF magazine Interzone as part of their special issue on my fiction. However, I first started writing the story in 2008, intending it for Jetse de Vries' Shine anthology of optimistic SF (although in hindsight the ideas behind there story were anything but optimistic, which is probably why Jetse bounced it). Once Jetse rejected the story in late 2009, I submitted it to Interzone

While I don't know the exact timeline for when Niccol wrote his screenplay, based on his previous projects it was likely also written in the last few years. Filming for the movie wrapped up in May of this year and the film itself will be released in October. Unless Niccol read my story in last year's Interzone and immediately wrote his own screenplay – an impossibility in today's Hollywood system – then there is no way either of us knew about the other's work around these ideas.

There are almost 7 billion people on this planet and it is not unusual for two of them to come up with the same idea at the same time. And even if one of us did copy an idea from the other, that still wouldn't matter. As U.S. copyright law states, "Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work." 

If you want to read "Millisent Ka Plays in Realtime," the story can be found in my collection Never Never Stories. As for In Time, the film comes out October 28. Since Andrew Niccol is one of my favorite Hollywood directors and writers – being the creative force behind such amazing SF films as The Truman Show and Gattaca – you better believe I'll be there opening night.

And if some of the ideas in the film seems strangely similar to ones I've written about, that's simply the way the creative ball bounces.