What A Coincidence—Whose Story is It?

Many of the movies and televisions shows that make it onto the big screen or into our living rooms began their lives in the pages of books. In most instances, for works not in the public domain, the authors enjoy a large payday for surrendering their worlds to the magic of Hollywood. However, authors may find themselves on the receiving end of amazing coincidences between what they’ve written versus what they’re seeing on the screen.

The recent story that caught my eye involves author Pete Hamill. His novel, Forever, explores the immortal life of of Cormac O’Connor and his quest for justice and the woman who can grant him peace. Imagine Mr. Hamill’s surprise when fans brought to his attention Fox’s series New Amsterdam, slated for launch this fall.

From the New Amsterdam site I discovered the following details of the new series:

  • The main character is named John Amsterdam.
  • He saves a “Native Indian” girl from death by stepping in from of a sword. She in turn weaves a spell granting him immortality “Amsterdam will not age, she told him, until he finds his one true love. Only then will he become whole and ready for mortality.”
  • Shoot forward to present day, and Amsterdam lives and works in New York/Manhattan as a homicide detective.

How does O’Connor compare? According to the CNN article:

  • O’Connor still bears a scar, “a ridge of dead flesh on his shoulder,” from his fatal wound. Amsterdam is marked with “scars everywhere … all over his torso and body,” according to a script acquired by Hamill’s agent.
  • O’Connor learned to play the piano, becoming a fan of legendary jazz player Art Tatum. Amsterdam plays too, and favors the work of legendary jazz player Thelonious Monk.
  • O’Connor has one way to return to a normal life: finding the right woman amidst Manhattan’s multitudes. And Amsterdam … “You will not grow old,” he is told,” until you find your one. One woman, that is.

Any guesses how the producer for New Amsterdam responded? See if this matches your guess:

Although the show’s executive producer, David Manson, insists that John Amsterdam was created independent of Cormac O’Connor, Hamill and his fans aren’t quite convinced—although the author’s attitude leans more to resignation than litigation…Manson, asked about the similarities in a session with TV critics earlier this summer, said he’d never read the Hamill book and was unaware of its existence until production was wrapped.

“I guess what I think about it is this—the subject of immortality has been compelling to, since the dawn of time, various cultures,” the show’s executive producer said. “I think that it’s not—it’s not surprising that there will be overlaps in this world. That’s all I can say.”

While I’m keenly aware that more than one person can have the same idea, I find the amount of overlap perplexing. And as Hamill points out:

“To try and prove anything about this would take thousands and thousands of dollars, which I’d rather spend on my grandson,” Hamill said. “You’ve gotta laugh.”

The world of intellectual property is tricky. I’m not an expert by any stretch, but I imagine it can be incredibly difficult to prove the original genesis of an idea. How do you prove that someone else didn’t have an idea before you, especially if there’s no “hard” record? How do you dis-prove coincidence?

This incident is neither the first nor the last time that authors will be left with a series of coincidences that leave them shaking their heads. There’s always been individuals and entities willing to push the ethical boundaries of “inspiration” and “coincidence.” Technically, no laws are broken (at least ones provable in a court of law).

Few things rank higher on my personal commandment list than “thou shalt not steal others’ ideas.” Our technology offers the ability to easily capture our ideas. At the same time, we can just as easily “borrow” them, too. More resources have granted access to more information, creating more personal responsibility. If I don’t exert every effort to ensure that I properly cite from where and who I get content, how can I expect the same respect?

Companies have shown time and again a willingness to go after individuals infringing on their intellectual property. (Reason Magazine has an interesting article from 2004 about Disney’s court battle with a cartoonist.) For individuals, the battle is much harder to fight. I wonder if the entities willing to walk this moral line would take the hint if we refused to participate, if we refused to reward them for claiming coincidence?



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September 2007
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