“Cosmos” Lawsuit? Sagan and Alien Abduction


March 2, 2014 by kittynh

I enjoy researching topics for Yankeeskeptic, but I have to admit while I enjoy online research, there is nothing like digging through a pile of papers at an archive. Some researchers to into an archive with a specific goal in mind.  They are looking for a paper that proves or disproves a specific hunch they have.

I however like a bit of serendipity. I consider an archive like a dark, still pool. I like to give it a stir and see what surfaces.

One of my favorite places to excavate is the Milne Special Collections at the University of New Hampshire Library in Durham, NH.

The librarians at UNH assure me the Hill Archive is quite popular, where new discoveries can still be found.

One surprise I had last month was finding the fragile paper on which Barney Hill drew his conception of the UFO that he claimed abducted him in 1961.  Resting unassumingly in a file, his simple drawing with his signature and date in the corner makes this drawing one of the most important documents in paranormal history and UFOlore/UFOlogy in particular. I found myself almost trembling when I had a chance to hold and photograph it.

My favorite surprise of the Hill Archive though has to be the epic “Cosmos” letters.  This rather quirky bit of UFO history has a fascinating cast:

Betty Hill – Well know UFO personality. Claimed to have been abducted with husband Barney in 1961 while traveling in New Hampshire.  Betty and Barney Hill were a biracial couple (quite unusual at the time), and their story is still cited by UFO believers as a “best case.”

John Fuller – Author of many books with paranormal themes.  Wrote “The Interrupted Journey” about the abduction claim of Betty and Barney Hill. Fuller is not a fan of Carl Sagan.

James Earl Jones – The voice of Darth Vadar and CNN’s catchphrase, but he is also owner of the rights to “The Interrupted Journey,” and he portrayed Barney Hill in the TV movie based on the book.

Stan Ferguson – Friend of Betty Hill. Ferguson is also not a Sagan fan.

Carl Sagan – Host and creator of “Cosmos,” the most viewed PBS series in the world and a world-famous astronomer who was known to be open-minded about the possibility of alien life.

KCET- PBS station that produced “Cosmos.”

William Lamb – Senior Vice President at KCET

Brenda Young – Attorney for Community Television for Southern California

“Cosmos” – The most viewed PBS show in history. Episode 12 features a short reenactment of the Hill’s claimed abduction.

Follow the paper trail of the “COSMOS INCIDENT.”

The first hint I had was one I just happened upon in the files.  It consists of a handwritten letter to Betty Hill from her friend Stan Ferguson.

“ I didn’t realize that C. Sagan had made so many errors until playing the tape back. The UFO Incident was more factual. One would think that a documentary like Cosmos would be more factual than a Hollywood dramatization. I’m surprised that Sagan didn’t have you black and Barney white!”

It took me a moment to realize the letter was talking about Dr. Carl Sagan and the PBS produced documentary “Cosmos.” What had Dr. Sagan gotten so wrong, and why was Betty’s friend so upset about it?

I had only heard praise for the show, but the more I dug in the archive, the more negative comments I read about Sagan. Since he was a known-believer in life on other planets and an early supporter of SETI, I was surprised at all the anger.

John Fuller

John Fuller

Fuller strikes first, in a letter to ICM (International Creative Management). ICM is a talent agency. In a reply to an inquiry by Fuller, Roberta Pryor responds. (dated 1/6/81)

“On the PBS-Carl Sagan/Cosmos business it seems to me the easiest way would be to call up PBS and if you can’t do it perhaps James Earl Jones’ lawyer Stanley Rothenburg would like to do it.
If it is indeed a violation it seems to me that James Earl Jones, since he acquired the exclusive rights, would be the one who is jumping up and down.”

At this point I am picturing James Earl Jones jumping up and down.  But it seems Fuller, author of “The Interrupted Journey” which Jones owns the rights to, is the one doing all the jumping.

Next comes quite a lot of confusion, as Fuller has dated a letter incorrectly. It  took me a few hours until I figured this out.

In a letter dated January 10, 1982 (should be 1981) to William Lamb, Senior VP at KCET:

Mr. Carl Sagan’s shoddy and unscientific appraisal of the UFO subject is one thing.  But his dramatization of a portion of my book THE INTERRUPTED JOURNEY without permission is another.
It is a further infringement of the motion picture rights or the book, which have been granted to James Earl Jone’s (sic) who appeared in the NBC-World Premier of the motion picture of the same literary work.”

So it appears Fuller is angry that the producers of “Cosmos” used the Hill’s story without his permission.  Still, James Earl Jones (not Jone’s) now owns the rights, but that doesn’t stop Fuller from his quest for justice.  The letter continues:

“I am frankly surprised and disappointed that a public supported organization like yours would present such a one sided picture of a subject that is being studied by many scientists who are open-minded, and who find Mr.Sagan’s prejudiced and close-minded appraisal of the subject to violate every tenant of the scientific method.”

Please pause a moment to appreciate my happiness when I read this next letter that helped considerably with the time line confusion.

This letter is dated 2/4/81 and is from William Lamb to Fuller:

“In response to your letter to me dated January 10, 1982 (sic) regarding the above referenced program, I must inform you that at no time did Dr. Sagan dramatize a portion of your book ‘The Interrupted Journey.'”

Lamb’s letter solves the date problem. Fuller used the wrong year.  Also please note that in these letters Dr. Sagan is always referred to as “Mr. Sagan” by Fuller and “Dr. Sagan” by PBS.

The letter from Lamb to Fuller continues:

“The Betty and Barney Hill incident is well known, particularly among UFO enthusiasts, and has been covered in newspaper and magazine reports. There would have been no need to infringe upon your rights or upon the rights of James Earl Jones.

If we were dealing with fictitious characters created by you, then I could understand your concern. However we are dealing with real people who told and retold their story of an encounter with alien beings.”

I found an almost Catch-22 quality about this part of the letter.

Betty and Barney Hill

Betty and Barney Hill

If the story were fiction, Fuller would have a case.  He would have to admit it was all made up to make any money off of this.  Of course, Betty and Barney Hill fully believed they had been abducted by aliens. This was non-fiction to them.  How Fuller felt about aliens, being that he had a financial interest in aliens and other paranormal creatures being real, we may never fully know.

This is equivalent to the case of Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, who wrote “The Holy Blood, The Holy Grail.”  Baigent and Leigh sued Dan Brown for copyright infringement.  However, the judge ruled that since their book was presented as fact, not fiction, they did not have a case.

The next letter is correctly dated 3/21/81.  Fuller again writes to PBS:

 “I have just returned from England to receive your letter.  I have to remind you and Mr. Sagan (I know of no PhD who refers to himself as “Dr.”, including three Nobel Laureates whom I have met personally), that the personal story of Betty and Barney Hill is fully copyrighted, both in literary and film areas, and that any magazine or newspaper articles referring to the above either referenced to the book itself or reported opinions of the copyrighted story. At no point whatever did they dramatize even a portion of the material.”

Fuller seems to be so upset with Sagan he is attacking even Sagan’s right to use the title “Doctor”. I have a daughter with a PhD, and while I jokingly call her “Doctor Daughter,” I hope that professionally people respect her hard work and also refer to her as “Doctor.”  That titled is earned.

The end of Fuller’s letter includes this bit where Betty Hill enters the story.  Fuller claims Betty Hill is also not happy about her depiction in episode 12:

“Since she is taking separate legal action on this phase of the case, I will refrain from commenting on that other than any distortions in that area are clearly a matter of litigation in addition to the copyright aspect.”

So how did Betty Hill feel?  The files contain a letter Betty sent to Fuller, with Fuller’s comments added in dark black pen.  It’s confusing to read, with circled words and Fuller’s thoughts injected here and there.

Dated 3/24/81, Betty’s letter to Fuller, with his added commentary, easily wakes up a sleepy researcher in a quiet library:

“Thanks for the copies of the letters.  Now, as for copywrite  they showed a copy of my star map, which is copywrited.  However they did use it on the program.”

Fuller has struck out and written “copyright” but let the second misspelling pass.  I was personally pleased to see Betty makes the same spelling errors I do.

At this point in the letter Fuller has written “NO!! The bastards!”

“I talked with a couple of lawyers who felt that I really did not have much to complain about.  They said I would need to show evidence that the presentation was harmful to me, financially, such as lectures which may have been scheduled, being cancelled out, this has not happened.” 

Betty Hill enjoyed a very busy career as a “UFO expert,” and my own feeling is that the “Cosmos” publicity would have increased her popularity as a speaker.

She continues with her complaints about the depiction of her story on “Cosmos”:

“However, in the dramatization which was shown, the experience was false from what actually happened.  Nothing was right – it was raining, we saw a light in the woods, and got out and staggered towards this. A Saganized fantasy, but using our names.  Nothing was obtained from magazine, newspaper or other public materials.  Mr. William J Lamb is an outright liar, in my opinion.”

I enjoyed the “Saganized fantasy” comment, but I also felt sorry for Betty Hill.  Ever since her experience, she and her story have been the recipients of endless scrutiny.  It had to be very frustrating for her to be defending her story over the years.

Then, I also have to remember that she also lectured and granted interviews about her story and her subsequent UFO viewings. She was not seeking privacy when it came to UFOs.  But, the Sagan episode must have been a let down, as I wonder if she possibly felt Sagan might give a positive depiction of her UFO experience.  Betty Hill fully believed her UFO abduction was real.

Still, how did KCET respond to Fuller’s last letter?  A letter dated 6/11/81 has Brenda Young responding:

“Mr.Lamb has left KCET for a new position, and in his absence, I have been asked to respond to your letter to him dated March 21, 1981.”

Mr. Lamb has left the drama. Ms. Young defends the position of PBS:

“Our records do not support your contention that all articles available to us either referred to your book or to opinions of the copyrighted story. However, we will be very interested in reviewing any documentation you may have supporting your claim of copyright infringement.”

The threatened lawsuits seem never to have happened.  I asked a friend that works as a law clerk to look up any cases in California involving John Fuller, James Earl Jones, or Betty Hill.  There were no mentions of a lawsuit involving any of those people against Carl Sagan or PBS.

Most scientists consider other life in the universe probable, though not yet confirmed.  There simply is no evidence supporting the claim that aliens are flying to Earth and abducting people.

There exists a lot of eye-witness testimony from people like Betty Hill, people who fully believe aliens visit Earth.  However, science demands more than eye-witness testimony.  Scientific proof for alien visitation is still as elusive today as when Dr. Carl Sagan and KCET first produced “Cosmos.”

Still, the possibility of lawsuit between Betty Hill, John Fuller, and James Earl Jones against PBS and Dr. Carl Sagan makes me wonder how it would have turned out.  Aliens on trial?  Copyright infringement?  No matter what the outcome, it would have been interesting!


Special thanks to Eric Rush for his bravery in offering to edit this blog post.  His editing work gave the post much more clarity and I appreciate not only his expertise but also his generosity.

Thank you also to Travis Roy, who introduced me to the Hill Archive.  

7 thoughts on ““Cosmos” Lawsuit? Sagan and Alien Abduction

  1. azatheist says:

    Betty and Barney…why do those names sound SO familiar? Let me sort through the rubble of my memories…I see an evening cartoon show and dinosaurs…funny thing though, they were on our 19″ b/W portable TV in September 1960. Perhaps Hanna Barbara should be suing them for using their characters names.

  2. […] “Cosmos” Lawsuit? Sagan and Alien Abduction. […]

  3. goslant says:

    Oh Kitty, if only science WOULD investigate “ufos”. Then they may discover evidence we are not alone.
    Be well.

    • terrythecensor says:

      > if only science WOULD investigate “ufos”. Then they may discover evidence we are not alone

      Fringe proponents have three logical reasons for why they can’t prove their claims. Yet they will — illogically — add a fourth.

      1) the evidence for the phenonemon sucks
      2) our investigation of the phenomenon sucks
      3) our explanation of the phenomenon sucks
      4) the people who aren’t studying the phenomenon suck

      Can you guess which reason proponents will choose?

  4. terrythecensor says:

    Nobody in the Hill camp seemed to get upset that Bryce Zabel, in the premier episode of Dark Skies (1996):

    1) portrayed Betty as a blonde
    2) showed an imaginary interview between the Hills and the imaginary aide of an imaginary congressman
    3) showed the Men in Black electronically eavesdropping on (and taping!) the imaginary interview

    The clip is here

    The script is here

    Click to access dark_skies_pilot_zabel_and_friedman.pdf

    In fact, the Hill camp liked Zabel’s version so much, they agreed to let him make a movie of Marden and Friedman’s book “Captured!”

    Can’t wait for the scene where Donald Menzel and MJ-12 order the MIB to off Barney with an orgone-powered zap gun.

  5. Kitty, thank you for this post, which I just came across and which I will call attention to on my Fan Page. I do think that, however shaky their legal claims may have been, Betty Hill and John Fuller had excellent grounds for being furious at Carl Sagan and “Cosmos.” Sagan exploited the enormous latent power of the Hills’ story, used it for all it was worth to draw in his audience. (With some distortions for dramatic effect, like making it take place on a dark and stormy night.) Then he turned around, dismissed and mocked it. Whatever you may think about the Hills’ experience–and I emphatically do NOT believe they were abducted by aliens–that just wasn’t right.
    I posted about this in September 2012, in a blog post entitled “Carl Sagan vs. Betty and Barney Hill – Working Both Sides of the Street.” I’m gratified to see that you’ve discovered Betty’s response. Makes me wonder what other treasures there may be in the Hill Archive.

    • kittynh says:

      the Hill archives are lovely, and the librarians are eager to show off the gems. Also there is much material that hasn’t been cataloged (or last time I was there it was still unfinished). Well worth a visit of two. Just simply tons of material, and a wonderful archival room to work in,

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