Australian author sees similar plot to his in trailer for new Danny Boyle film

The upcoming movie Yesterday bears resemblance to Nick Milligan’s novel Enormity

When Nick Milligan decided to self-publish his speculative fiction novel, Enormity, he knew it was going to be a hard slog to find an audience. But seeing a similar plot play out in the trailer for Danny Boyle’s new film, Yesterday, came as a shock.

“I had high expectations for Enormity’s success,” Milligan said. “I wrote it with a movie in mind.”

That goal seems even more out of reach now.

Written by Richard Curtis and starring Himesh Patel and Lily James, Yesterday follows a character called Jack (Patel) who has a bicycle accident during a worldwide blackout. According to the trailer, which was released last week, when Jack wakes up, he finds himself in an almost identical version of Earth in which The Beatles never existed. He passes off their music as his own, and havoc ensues.

It’s a plot that bears remarkable resemblance to the Australian Milligan’s novel, which also follows a character called Jack who, after a journey into deep space, finds himself on a planet that’s almost identical to Earth, with a few exceptions – including that its people have never heard of The Beatles.

“He passes off classic music as his own material, including that of The Beatles, and the story then explores the consequences of that lie,” Milligan told Guardian Australia.

“The central premise and general exploration of the concept are the same. Both Jacks experience inner turmoil in regard to the lie they’re living and perpetuating,” Milligan said. “They’re both morality tales. Both are satires on the music industry. And the trajectory to superstardom, with Jack performing to a crowded stadium etc, appears to be in both.”

But there are differences in tone, Milligan points out.

“The tone of both, outside of the central premise, appears quite different. Yesterday is a more light-hearted family-friendly film, where Enormity is far more dark and twisted,” said Milligan. “It’s probably just a horrible coincidence and they mean me no disrespect.”

Milligan self-published Enormity in 2013, selling on Amazon. He estimates with giveaways and direct sales, he saw some 20,000 downloads of his book.

He chose to self-publish rather than trying to find a traditional publisher because he felt his idea “didn’t quite fit into a particular genre, so it might have been put in the too hard basket” by commercial publishers.

“Being an independent author, as I see it, is a long game. You have to be realistic. Rather than a big marketing budget you rely on word of mouth. It’s generally a slower process. Each new novel you write ultimately promotes the previous books. So my expectations have never been of overnight success,” Milligan said.

Research from Macquarie University in 2015 showed Australian authors earn only an average of $2,600 per annum from self-publishing genre fiction, the highest-earning area in self-publishing.

Since speaking out over the weekend about the similarities between Enormity and Yesterday, Milligan said he has seen a modest spike in sales of his own work.

“I honestly feel quite awkward about the whole situation. On one hand it’s amazing that Enormity is finally getting some exposure, but this is not the way I wanted it to happen,” he said.

“I hope people don’t read my book expecting it to be a light-hearted romp or a carbon copy of what’s in the trailer.”

Australian copyright law protects the expression of an idea but not the idea itself. According to the Australian Copyright Council, the basic plot for a book, television series, film or play, including the characters, is not protected by copyright, but the literary work itself is protected.

Grant McAvaney, CEO of the Australian Copyright Council, told Guardian Australia that to prove copyright infringement, one creator would need to prove that the other had taken a material portion of their work. “So that’s not just the idea alone, but it’s the way the idea is explored … by reference to things such as structure, characters, key plot points and language used,” he said.

But copyright law also varies across territories and is notoriously complicated. Even a claim pursued in Australia would result in a costly and time-consuming court case, said McAvaney. “Adding an international dimension adds to the cost and the complexity because the courts of different countries will take slightly different approaches to copyright infringement. Even if you win, enforcing that judgment against someone based overseas can be very difficult.”

“This is certainly not the first time a writer has felt this way – concerns were raised by the family of a later author about Shape of Water; and several authors felt that Avatar drew on their own creations,” McAvaney said.

Yesterday is due out in June. Milligan is understood to be seeking legal advice on his situation.

The producer of Yesterday, Working Title Films, has been approached for comment.

Contributor

Stephanie Convery

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Job losses, cancelled tours, delayed releases: the Australian books industry grapples with 'huge shock'
In the weeks since the coronavirus crisis hit, Australia’s writers, publishers and booksellers have struggled to keep their heads above water

Stephanie Convery

25, Apr, 2020 @8:00 PM

Article image
Muslim Australian writers have a lot to say. Our books ought to be as common as Vegemite
Muslim writers are defined by the urge to share what is good and beneficial, but we are frequently rejected by mainstream publishers

Ozge Sevindik Alkan, Aksen Ilhan and Annie McCann

24, Sep, 2021 @3:54 AM

Article image
Exclusive: first look at the trailer for Simon Baker's film adaptation of Tim Winton's Breath
Winton’s award-winning coming of age novel had a ‘profound effect’ on Baker, who translated it for the big screen in his directorial debut

Stephanie Convery

02, Dec, 2017 @10:00 PM

Article image
Shirley Hazzard, internationally acclaimed Australian author, dies at 85
Novelist, who has died in New York, wrote The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire, and won the Miles Franklin prize and the National Book award

Steph Harmon

14, Dec, 2016 @1:17 AM

Article image
Louise Adler appointed publisher-at-large at Hachette Australia
New role comes seven months after publisher’s controversial resignation from Melbourne University Publishing

Stephanie Convery

04, Sep, 2019 @1:58 AM

Article image
‘Most of Australia’s literary heritage is out of print’: the fight to rescue a nation’s lost books
When they realised even Miles Franklin winners can be sent to the pulp pile, authors, librarians and academics began building a digital ark for bereft books

James Shackell

23, Jun, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
The Australian book you should read next: Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook
The story of the preppy city-bred schoolteacher in outback Australia is easy to explain, the novel’s nightmarish tension not so much

Briohny Doyle

23, Jul, 2020 @5:30 PM

Article image
10 years of the Stella: how Australia’s women’s writing prize changed a nation’s literature
Publishers speak of the profound effect the prize has had on Australia’s book industry in the decade since its establishment

Kelly Burke

07, Oct, 2021 @1:56 AM

Article image
University of Western Australia's decision to close publishing house sparks outrage
Decision to shut UWA Publishing, which published works by multiple Miles Franklin winners, came ‘out of the blue’

Stephanie Convery

08, Nov, 2019 @2:50 AM

Article image
Stella Count shows gender bias in book reviews is changing
Within six years of its introduction, nearly half of all book reviews in Australia in 2018 were of works by female authors

Stephanie Convery

18, Sep, 2019 @6:00 PM