June 2013: Entertainment Litigation Update

by Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP
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California Appeals Court Decides for Defendants in Idea Theft Case. While idea theft claims continue to proliferate in Hollywood, a recent decision from the California Court of Appeal bolsters defendants’ chances for achieving summary judgment in such cases. Anthony Spinner, an experienced television producer, writer, and former studio executive, sued ABC, claiming it had stolen his ideas in developing the TV series “LOST.” Spinner v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., 2013 DJDAR 4477 (Cal. App. 2nd Dist. April 5, 2013). In 1977, Spinner wrote a script about a group of eight plane-crash survivors in the Himalayas who go through a mysterious tunnel in the mountain and emerge in a strange prehistoric world. ABC passed on the script. In 1991, Spinner resubmitted a revised version of the script, but ABC passed again. In 2009, Spinner sued ABC, claiming that ABC had access to and used his 1977 script to develop and produce the highly successful “LOST” series in 2003.

The Court of Appeal affirmed summary judgment for ABC. First, the court held that Spinner’s proof of access was inadequate as a matter of law. Spinner argued that because ABC had a policy of putting all submitted scripts in a script library, the 2003 development team had access to his 1977 script. The court found that “mere corporate receipt” of the script was not sufficient proof of access. Spinner could not demonstrate any nexus between the ABC executives to whom Spinner submitted his scripts (who had left ABC long ago) and the creative team that ultimately developed “LOST.” Second, the court rejected Spinner’s argument that independent creation in idea theft cases must occur prior to the alleged access. Here, independent creation occurred after the alleged access (although the alleged access to Spinner’s work was by ABC executives who had no involvement with “LOST”). Finally, the court found that ABC’s uncontradicted evidence of independent creation rebutted any substantial similarity between the works. The Court of Appeal’s decision demonstrates that the factual nature of the issues of access, substantial similarity, and independent creation does not necessarily preclude summary judgment for a defendant.

Ninth Circuit Requires Substantial Similarity of Protectable Elements for Copyright Claim for “Cars.” On April 29, the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari in Mandeville-Anthony v. Walt Disney Co., — S. Ct. —, 2013 WL 775455 (April 29, 2013), letting stand a decision by the Ninth Circuit affirming that Disney and Pixar did not steal writer Jake Mandeville-Anthony’s scripts and ideas for their animated films “Cars” and “Cars 2” and the spin-off series “Cars Toon.”

Mandeville-Anthony originally brought an action for copyright infringement and breach of implied contract in March 2011, alleging that Disney and Pixar’s successful “Cars” franchise was derived from, and substantially similar to, his scripts for “Cookie & Co.” and “Cars/Auto Excess/Cars Chaos,” which feature cartoon cars. Mandeville-Anthony v. Walt Disney Co., 2012 WL 4017785 (C.D. Cal. July 28, 2011). Mandeville-Anthony claimed he had sent his scripts to defendants prior to the production of the first “Cars” film. Defendants brought a motion for judgment on the pleadings, claiming that the works at issue were not, as a matter of law, substantially similar in their protectable elements. The district court, in determining whether the works were substantially similar, applied the “objective extrinsic test,” which “focuses on articulable similarities between the plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters and sequence of events.”

Mandeville-Anthony argued that the plots of the works were similar, as they “both revolve[d] around anthropomorphic cars, including lead characters interacting with other cars and finding themselves in a number of situations that bring about humor and romance, with the backdrop of a race.” Defendants argued that these basic plot ideas were not protectable and that, in any event, the plots, sequence of events, and pace were actually different. Defendants also claimed that the basic idea for real-life objects that can talk and have personalities had been a staple of cartoons for decades and that the mood and setting of the works were entirely different.

The district court accepted defendants’ arguments, finding that the protectable elements of the works were not substantially similar as a matter of law. The district court also granted defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings with respect to Mandeville-Anthony’s second cause of action for breach of implied contract on statute of limitations grounds. In July 2012, the Ninth Circuit affirmed. See Mandeville-Anthony v. Walt Disney Co., 474 Fed. Appx. 651, 2012 WL 2951374 (9th Cir. July 20, 2012).

This decision confirms the propriety of summary adjudication of copyright claims, based on the objective extrinsic test, when the protectable elements of literary works are not substantially similar.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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