Rocket Man: Do You Own Your Own Life Story?


You might remember a movie called October Sky. It opened in ‘99 and starred Jake Gyllenhaal as Homer Hickam, a boy from West Virginia who dreams of getting out of his coal mine town. He was inspired, along with his friends, by the Russian satellite launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957.

At that time you could actually tune in with a radio and hear it as it orbited overhead.

Homer and friends, built amateur rockets, won a National Science Fair gold medal and indeed went off to college.

Plus it’s more or less true, save for a few Hollywood adaptation details. Homer Hickam is a real person, who did eventually become a top NASA engineer who trained astronauts for Spacelab and Shuttle missions.

But right now he’s actually in the midst of a legal battle over the rights to his story. The rights to his life essentially. In 1998 he published Rocket Boys, the memoir that became the basis for the movie. Now he’s suing Universal for over $20 million dollars because of a musical they’ve produced based on October Sky. Hickam claims in his suit that Universal went ahead with the musical and has quote “taken the completely fallacious position” that it owns the rights to the October Sky source material.

Mr. Hickam has written other books that contain either historical or amalgamated versions of his family and friends, and has expressed concern that Universal’s actions will tie up his ability to option those stories, turning them into movies or do whatever he wants to do with them.

In fact, Homer Hickam developed and produced his own stage adaptation of Rocket Boys first. Which is part of the reason for the lawsuit. According to Hickam, Universal repeatedly claimed it would not impede his ability to develop his own projects related to his memoirs, but went ahead with their own mirror production and has subsequently moved to shut down Hickam’s original play.

The lawsuit was filed in June and among other things claims breach of contract, fraud, and unfair competition on the part of Universal. Hickam has in the meantime asked that his name be taken off the production of October Sky, including marketing materials and the character who’s based on him.

This audio is produced by Press For Sound. Our theme music was written by Eric Donahoe. Mark Isham composed the music for October Sky. The song “Coalwood” appears in the October Sky Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Music also from October Sky at the Marriott Theater. Music and lyrics by Michael Mahler.Just this week Hickam took to his blog to gingerly lay out his side of things, even while the suit is still going on. It’s his ability to turn his other memoirs into film and television that he’s primarily concerned about, being that he makes his living now writing. When TV and film are off the table, he says, publishers are less likely to be interested in future books. His latest, Carrying Albert Home, loosely based on his parents, was published in October of last year.

Twitter @BillyDonahoe.

Subscribe to the Nerd Dash Podcast on iTunes.

Read the lawsuit filed by Homer Hickam here.

Homer Hickam Twitter @HomerHickam

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