On November 28, 2023, U.S. District Judge Fred W. Slaughter for the Central District of California granted motions for summary judgment against a screenwriter’s claims that the creation of Ad Astra, the 2019 Brad Pitt film, had infringed on a script he had written.[1]  The Court reasoned that the defendant companies could not have possibly copied the script in question, as they did not have access to the script until after Ad Astra was written.  Additionally, the court stated, the two films were significantly different so as to conclude there was no infringement, even if it could be shown there was access.  

Phillip Madison Jones, the screenwriter, sued Twentieth Century Studios, The Walt Disney Co., Creative Arts Agency (“CAA”) and RT Features in June 2021, alleging that he had written his script, Cosmic Force, in 2014 and that the subsequent film, Ad Astra, had used “the entire central storyline, characters, plot, mood, theme and various minor elements of [Cosmic Force] from beginning to end”.  In addition to copyright infringement, Jones accused the companies of breach of implied contract, false designation of origin and unfair competition. 

The court held that Jones hadn’t sufficiently pointed to any evidence demonstrating direct copying of his script, nor had he established that the studios and agency even had access to it.

To show infringement, there must be access to the work that was allegedly infringed upon—an element the court believes is not met here.  Jones first brought his script to CAA in November 2015, with a subsequent submission of the script in September 2016.  The makers of Ad Astra, on the other hand, submitted their script to CAA in November 2013, with an additional script in May 2015.  Based on this timeline, which is undisputed, it was clear that the initial script of Ad Astra was created before Jones’ script was created. .[2]  

In addition to the timeline, the court also highlighted that there was no reason to believe the relevant people had access to the script Jones had submitted.  When Jones brought the script to CAA in 2015, only one agent reviewed the script and subsequently turned it down.  The defendant writers had also met with CAA, but the court noted that there was no evidence of communication between the agent Jones met with and the agents working with the defendant writers.  Jones’s script was also never uploaded to CAA’s repository of screenplays. 

Lastly, in 2016, Jones had submitted a TV-ready version of his script to a representative at 20th Century sister company Fox 21 Television Studios, but the representative had not expressed an interest in producing the film and thus never shared the script with anyone else at the studio.

Taking together the timeline of submissions and the defendant studios’ lack of access to Jones’s script, the court reasoned that there could not have been an infringement.

The court further explained that, even if there was access, the two films lacked substantial similarity and, therefore, necessitated a rejection of the infringement allegation.  The court reasoned, “although Cosmic Force and Ad Astra both involve protagonists journeying to outer space to search for lost missions helmed by their respective fathers, the court concludes that the similarities between the two works ends there.” 

Jones describes Cosmic Force as “the story of a soldier who is offered the opportunity to lead a mission across unforgiving space to the edge of the solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father, a legendary astronaut, whose doomed expedition twenty years earlier now threatens the universe due to a pulsating alien energy source on board the father’s ship.”[3]  The protagonist was recruited to join this clandestine mission as a result of his athleticism demonstrated in a futuristic war-sport, and the film includes various fight scenes and romantic storylines before the soldier ultimately finds the ship and his father.  The movie ends when the protagonist exploding the ship with his father on board.

Ad Astra, on the other hand, depicts the protagonist traveling to several planets in search of a rogue mission commander, his father, as he believes that there is antimatter leaking from the lost ship that is causing trouble on Earth.  The protagonist discovers that information on his father was withheld from him, and he breaks rank to find his father.  When he succeeds, though, his father has no interest in returning to Earth, forcing him to let his father float off to his death.  The film concludes when the protagonist returns to Earth with a newfound realization that meaning in life is derived from those closest to him, not from the exploration of outer space, and decides to reconnect with his estranged wife.

Whereas Cosmic Force is an action-packed sci-fi thriller, Ad Astra is a slow-burn drama, more akin to reality.  The key similarity—the protagonist’s search for his lost father—is not protectable, the court reasoned.

As a result of his failure to respond, Jones also technically admitted that CAA didn’t contribute to or induce any infringement or copying of his screenplay and that his screenplay isn’t substantially similar to Ad Astra.  The court concluded the admissions and facts presented provided sufficient grounds for determining that the undisputed facts in this case warranted an entry of summary judgment in favor of defendant CAA on plaintiff’s claims. The court also found that Jones didn’t enter into any implied contract with the agency or studios, and thus could not allege breach of contract.

Jones’s attorney has said that he will be appealing the order, as, in his view, “justice was not done here.”[4]

In sum, the court made clear that plaintiffs cannot rely on sparse coincidences in storylines, and have to actually show that (i) defendants had access to the protected work and (ii) the new work was a result of copying and not coincidence, independent creation or prior common source.

[1] Phillip Madison Jones v. Twentieth Century Studios, Inc. et al, Case No. 2:2021cv05890 (C.D. Ca. 2021) (full order can be viewed here).

[2] Fed. R. Civ. P. 36(a)(3) (“[a] matter is admitted unless, within 30 days after being served, the party to whom the request is directed serves on the requesting party a written answer or objection addressed to the matter and signed by the party or its attorney”).  Admissions can concern “the truth of any matters within the scope of Rule 26(b)(1) relating to: (A) facts, the application of law to fact, or opinions about either; and (B) the genuineness of any described documents.”  Fed. R. Civ. P. 36(a)(1). 

[3] Hailey Konnath, 20th Century, CAA Defeat Writer’s Suit Over ‘Ad Astra’ Script, Law360 (Nov. 29, 2023) https://www.law360.com/articles/1771336?e_id=2a88bf49-be3c-416e-95c6-7f44fa389b7b&utm_source=engagement-alerts&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=case_updates.

[4] Winston Cho, Disney, CAA Beat Copyright Infringement Lawsuit From Production Exec Over ‘cosmi’, The Hollywood Reporter (Nov. 30, 2023) https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/disney-caa-copyright-infringement-lawsuit-ad-astra-1235704553/#recipient_hashed=ab4d935378b9cdea33b2aeea3790614c5d3e306c7dcc5a02edb0cf2eaadcea86&recipient_salt=1bcdf83bbd8488fb09631e5f90b822cd2d4ef98e2604ed17af29fb6dda93fa9f/.