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In 1942 a novel appeared: Beyond This Horizon by Robert Heinlein.

  • The setting is a future time when it has become standard that people's genes are chosen from among their parents' genes by doctors, who try to pick the best among those available, but are forbidden to add any new genes not present in the parents.

  • Those whose genes are chosen the old-fashioned way are looked down upon as inferior people.

In 1997 the movie Gattaca appeared.

  • The setting is a future time when it has become standard that people's genes are chosen from among their parents' genes by doctors, who try to pick the best among those available, but are forbidden to add any new genes not present in the parents.

  • Those whose genes are chosen the old-fashioned way are looked down upon as inferior people.

In 1953 the novel Starman Jones, also by Robert Heinlein, appeared.

  • The protagonist falsifies his identity and work record to get a position in the crew of a spacecraft.

  • The protagonist has memorized a book on navigation in space.

In Gattaca,

  • The protagonist falsifies his identity and work record to get a position in the crew of a spacecraft.

  • The protagonist has memorized a book on navigation in space.

But the story in Gattaca is quite different from those in either of the two Heinlein novels. In Gattaca, the spacecraft is on a bold mission of exploration; in Starman Jones it is a luxury liner that makes routine voyages carrying passengers and freight.

In Gattaca the protagonist is one of those whose genes were chosen the old-fashioned way; in Beyond This Horizon he is is one whom the government wants to have many children to continue their eugenics program because he is considered of superior stock. He wishes not to have children because he thinks most humans are naturally unhappy and he would only be sentencing his descendants to unhappy lives. And some of his coevals are so unhappy despite their affluent lifestyle that they want to overthrow the fairly liberal government and replace it with a dictatorship.

Heinlein is not acknowledged in the movie credits.

How much do they need to lift from already published fiction before it becomes a derivative work with obligations to the owner of the copyright on the earlier work?

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    I'm sure it would be (persuasively, IMO) argued by the studio lawyers that positive Eugenics is not unique to Beyond This Horizon, and that (1) doctors choosing genes is a naturally foreseeable outcome, and (2) the nominally superior oppressing and discriminating against the nominally inferior is as old as humanity.
    – RonJohn
    Aug 24 at 17:09
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Under U.S. law (17 U.S. Code § 101 )

A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work.”

But probably, focusing on this definition doesn't get to the heart of the question you seem to be asking. A more important matter becomes what protections does a copyright exclude? This is covered in § 102 (b), which says:

In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

The similarities you describe seem to be more ideas and concepts rather than Heinlein's expression of those ideas. I have looked no closer than the description used in the question, but the movie seems unlikely to have violated a protected right. Others might disagree.

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    People skirt much closer to this line all the time. Fifty Shades of Grey was literally a Twilight fan-fiction with the serial numbers filed off. Based on the description in the question, this is not even remotely a close call.
    – Kevin
    Aug 24 at 19:13
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I have read the Heinlein books you cite many times, and seen the movie Gattaca once. I do not think Gattaca is a derivative work of either or both novels. The concept of faking an identity in order to get a desired job is a very common trope, both in SF and in general literature. The kind of faking done in the movie is not very similar to the deception in Starman Jones. The overt, pervasive, legal discrimination in the movie is quite unlike the situation in Beyond This Horizon. In the novel, "Control Naturals" (people born without artificial genetic selection) receive a government subsidy, but no one knows who they are unless they choose to make this public. They lack the ability for some jobs (or some of them do), but are perfectly able to do many professional jobs, and one is shown as running his own business. They are not at all limited to menial jobs.

Only the (rather cardboard) villains of the novel plan to discriminate against the control naturals, and they are defeated before they can put these plans into effect. (An insider reveals that they actually plan to wipe out the "naturals".)

Also the major themes of the Social Credit economic system, and the investigation into life after death and reincarnation in BTH are not at all present in the movie.

The question asks:

How much do they need to lift from already published fiction before it becomes a derivative work with obligations to the owner of the copyright on the earlier work?

There is no clear bright line on this. But in general copyright does not protect ideas or broad themes. A classic plot such as "boy meets girl" or "monster threatens city" is not enough to make the later work derivative of the earlier one. There must be detailed point-by-point similarities of elements of plot or character for one work to be derivative of another.

For example, the early classic SF movie Forbidden Planet has some similarities of concept and tone with the "original" version of the TV series Star Trek. Indeed FP could probably have been rewritten as an episode of ST without drastic changes. But this was not sufficient to make ST a derivative work.

It might be a good rule of thumb to say that if all the similarities can be described in a one-page plot summery, they are not enough to make the later work derivative. A better test is that the existence of detailed, point-by-point similarities will often lead to a conclusion that the later work is derivative.

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    On the Forbidden Planet note -- Gene Roddenberry told his biographer that Forbidden Planet was indeed one of his inspirations for Star Trek. Forbidden Planet itself is, of course, seen as a modern adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. There are also some lengthy threads elsewhere on Stack discussing Heinlein's apparent 19th-century inspirations for Starman Jones and whether it drew from an actual incident on a sailing vessel. Aug 23 at 20:18
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    You say control naturals in Beyond This Horizon "are not at all limited to menial jobs", but I think the same is true of Gattaca. The protagonist was so limited only because he was considered at risk for a heart disease. Aug 23 at 22:02
  • If you've read Starman Jones many times, can you tell me whether you noticed that the law that is applied to the protagonist in Chapter 20 was explicitly stated more than a dozen chapters earlier? (But don't tell people here what it was; that would be a spoiler.) Aug 24 at 19:00
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    @Michael I think it is first mentioned in chpter 6 ("Spaceman" Jones) where there is a discussion of the organization of star-ships in that universe. Frankly I don't think there is much need to worry about spoilers for a book first published in 1953, rarely out of print since, and probably one of the top 50 or 100 best known works of SF ever. Further discussion of the book probably belongs on SFF.SE, where it has been mentioned in several threads. Aug 24 at 20:49
  • @DavidSiegel : Just why one should not worry about spoilers I don't know. The fact is that the majority of humans have not read that story. Aug 25 at 5:23
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The example that comes readily to mind of "plot similarity as copyright infringement" is "Fistful of Dollars" being an old-west copy of Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" samurai movie. Reportedly settled for 15%.

But that wasn't a couple of ideas, that approached a scene-by-scene remake.

Legal merits aren't the only possible reasons to settle. Negative publicity and respect for Kurosawa could've played a part.

Also, this was Italians making a movie in Spain that made most of its money in America being sued by a Japanese guy in the mid-60's--the logistics alone are a compelling reason to settle.

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    Besides, Yojimbo used the plot of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op novel Red Harvest (and possibly also his novel The Glass Key). These also formed the basis of David Drake's SF novel The Sharp End and of an SF novel by another author Red Noise. Aug 25 at 14:25

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