In 2016, filmmaker Lex Lybrand released his movie, The Trolls, in which the central premise revolves around the growing phenomenon known as patent trolls.
These are individuals or companies that typically produce no intellectual property of their own but who merely obtain broad legal rights through a patent or license of a vague concept for the sole purpose of profiting off of actual content creators by shaking them down with threats of expensive litigation.
This was precisely the same subject of a recent episode of the HBO comedy series Silicon Valley titled “The Patent Troll,” where Pied Piper CEO and series lead Richard Hendricks finds himself the victim of the titular troll.
After the episode aired, Lybrand called out the series on Twitter for allegedly stealing elements from his film:
In the attached video, Lybrand showed side-by-side comparisons between the Silicon Valley episode and his own film, highlighting eight points of similarity:
- A story about a tech startup company run by a male lead character having winds taken out of their sails when they learn they’re being sued for patent infringement by someone they will later learn to be a patent troll.
- Male lead character angrily banging on the patent troll’s front door demanding an explanation in person and discovers they are a patent troll in an exposition scene.
- Story centered around a legal battle with a patent troll including a scene of main character meeting with his lawyer in said lawyer’s office in an exposition scene designed to explain the major premise of patent trolling to any audience unfamiliar with this concept that’s key to understanding the plot.
- Scene where characters try to find a legal solution to their legal problem while studying … legal documents.
- A bearded friend attempts computer hacking as a solution to their problems.
- A Chevy Volt is visible in front of the patent troll’s home.
- Main characters invent plan to “troll the trolls” using those exact same words.
- The word “genius” is used in reference to the male main character either intended literally, figuratively, or completely ironically.
First of all, patent trolls are growing more and more common, and it’s a concept that easily lends itself to stories about likable characters having their dreams held hostage by unsympathetic villains who don’t produce anything of their own and get rich by extorting others. Tech companies are also frequent targets of patent trolls because there’s a lot of money in the tech industry.
Next, Lex Lybrand did not invent the exposition scene. It’s existed since pretty much as long as there have been films. Scenes where a villain explains his or her motivations and where a still relatively obscure central premise is explained for the benefit of the audience are essential components to almost any script. That the confrontation scenes involve physically kicking at the door as well as the face-to-face meetings between hero and villain both employ visual storytelling. Kicking at a door shows anger and frustration in the hero. An in-person confrontation is usually more dramatic on screen than two actors in separate locations yelling into their phones.
Characters trying to find a legal loophole to solve their legal troubles is common sense and, assuming their lawyer isn’t one of the lead characters, the characters don’t appear proactive in the story unless they themselves are depicted as digging through legal documents for a solution.
Martin Starr’s Gilfoyle character on Silicon Valley has worn a beard for the entire run of the series and his attempting to solve the problem through hacking is consistent with his character and his capabilities. Also, duh, these characters all work at a tech company in Silicon Valley, where it’d be odd if nobody even suggested hacking their way out of trouble. But, because hacking is not a narratively satisfying solution to a central crisis, of course that ultimately does not save the day. Good stories usually require a hero to solve their problem by overcoming a personal flaw in themselves.
The Chevy Volt connection is just too stupid to warrant serious comment.
Then, there’s the only actual case of the exact same word usage with “troll the trolls,” which is apparently repeatedly used in Lybrand’s film. Of course this is itself not all that original, owing its basis to previous iterations of this same trope like “con the cons” or “prank the prankers.” Maybe Ludacris should sue Lybrand for stealing from his song, “Rob the Robbers.”
As for the main character being called a “genius,” the word doesn’t even appear to be used in a remotely similar way, based on how Lybrand illustrates the point in his video. In Silicon Valley, Richard arrogantly calls himself a genius and is using the term literally whereas The Trolls example seems to depict someone else ironically calling the main protagonist a genius in an attempt to insult.
Lybrand also claims the Silicon Valley episode’s writer has an indirect connection to his film, claiming, “He’s good friends with an ex of one of the actresses.”
Accusations, even lawsuits, revolving around someone claiming a successful film or television show stole their work are quite commonplace in Hollywood. In fact, screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin regularly tear these claims apart on their podcast, Scriptnotes. I reached out to them for a response to Lybrand’s video on Twitter:
But plagiarism accusations with far closer similarities have even turned into lawsuits that ultimately were dismissed in court. For instance, last year a judge rejected allegations that the Fox series New Girl was stolen from two writers. In that case, the accusers also had a six degree of separation story for how the defendants could have seen their original script. And, on the surface, the incredibly long list of similarities seem shockingly specific down to:
- the best friend in each work is named “CeCe” or has the initials “C.C.”
- the name of the protagonist’s unfaithful beau in each work is Spencer;
- the plot of both works revolves around the protagonist moving in with three guys; both breakups involve humiliating strip teases by the protagonist;
And yet evidence the New Girl producers had “reasonable opportunity to access” the plaintiffs’ earlier work was insufficient. Even seemingly remarkable name similarities are legally insufficient to conclude idea theft. Now compare the New Girl case to Lybrand with his lame Chevy Volt and hacker with a beard similarities, and you start to realize the similarities are superficial at best. The dialogue is different. The characters are different. All that matches are the basic premise, a few general story points, and a single exact phrase that borders on cliche anyway. As August and Mazin conclude in the podcast episode where they covered the New Girl lawsuit:
John: “It’s execution.”
Craig: “Yes! Thank you. Nobody tunes in because, oh my god, they’re doing it again this week! She’s still living with three guys! Oh my god!”
Could the remarkable similarities between the Silicon Valley episode and the film The Trolls be merely a coincidence? Well, yes. A thousand monkeys typing on a thousand typewriters may plagiarize Shakespeare eventually.
Perhaps the granddaddy of these sorts of bizarre coincidences just recently happened when two different lead characters played by the same actress, Carrie Coon, on the current seasons of two different shows, The Leftovers and Fargo, simultaneously both suffered from the same problem with technology repeatedly and inexplicably failing to work only for them — an incredibly specific choice Coon swears she didn’t leak:
A self-described goofball, Coon—who starred this year in the third seasons of both Lindelof’s The Leftovers and Noah Hawley’s Fargo—had told neither prestige TV titan that they had independently written eerily similar plot lines for her on their separate shows. “I was honestly a little perturbed,” Hawley admitted. But Coon had her reasons: “When I kept encountering similarities to The Leftovers on Fargo, the writers had no idea that they were creating parallels between the two shows.
Patent trolls, as a concept, was in the air and ready to be used as a plot device. And it comes with an obvious built-in David vs. Goliath narrative that casts the troll as an easy villain.
There are millions of writers out there all seeing the same TV shows and movies and generally being exposed to the same story trends. It’s inevitable that many will hit on the same ideas and that eventually a few cases will even share eerily specific details by chance alone.