Williams v. Black Entertainment Television, Inc.
USDC E.D. New York, February 14, 2014
District court denies defendants’ motions to dismiss pro se plaintiff’s copyright infringement claim related to airing of television show allegedly based on his copyrighted life story, finding author’s expression of historical facts is copyrightable.
Pro se plaintiff Charles Williams brought an action for copyright infringement against defendants Viacom, Inc.; Black Entertainment Television LLC s/h/a BET Networks; A&E Television Networks, LLC; Apple, Inc.; Netflix, Inc.; Amazon Corporate; and A. Smith & Co. Properties, Inc., alleging that an episode of BET’s “An American Gangster Story” titled “Chaz Williams Armed & Dangerous” infringed on his copyrighted life story, which allegedly included some fictionalized elements. The district court denied defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint for failure to state a copyright claim, finding that while historical facts are not copyrightable, an author’s expression of those facts are.
In his complaint, plaintiff alleged that he registered copyrights in his life story with the Library of Congress and the Writers Guild and that an episode of “An American Gangster Story” titled “Chaz Williams Armed & Dangerous” used this “bio-documentary,” which not only detailed plaintiff’s life story but also included fictionalized elements from his copyrighted works. Plaintiff alleged that the infringing work aired on BET and A&E and was available on Netflix, Amazon and iTunes. After defendants moved to dismiss the amended complaint, plaintiff filed an amended complaint that purported to add Black Hand Entertainment as a plaintiff and alleged that plaintiff and Black Hand Entertainment jointly owned the copyrights at issue. The amended complaint also supplemented the allegation that “Chaz Williams Armed & Dangerous” was both a documentary and a story and that defendants copied fictional portions of plaintiff’s copyright materials. Because plaintiff missed the deadline for filing an amended complaint as a matter of right, the court considered the amended complaint as a proposed amended complaint and the filing as a motion to file.
Defendants moved to dismiss the copyright infringement claim for failing to state a claim, arguing that the similarities between the works at issue were historical facts, which are not entitled to copyright protection. The court, however, held that although historical facts themselves are not copyrightable, an author’s expression of historical facts is protectable, and the allegations in the complaint that the historical facts in the allegedly infringed work had been embellished with fictitious elements and/or original expression were sufficient to avoid dismissal at the pleading stage. The court also acknowledged that, under the law, a complaint for copyright infringement could be dismissed at the pleading stage, based on lack of substantial similarity between the works in issue. The court held that it was not possible to do a substantial similarity analysis, however, because neither party had provided the complete works to the court.
The court also rejected defendants’ argument that plaintiff failed to sufficiently allege the copying of constituent elements of the work that are original. Noting that the complaint did lack details in the allegation of copying, the court nonetheless denied the motion to dismiss, reasoning that direct evidence of copying is rare and plaintiffs generally establish copying by showing access and substantial similarity of protectable material in the two works. The court also rejected defendants’ argument that the complaint failed to allege substantial similarity, finding that, given plaintiff’s pro se status, his allegations that defendants had incorporated his artistic expression of his life story were sufficient, if only just barely, to overcome a motion to dismiss.
With respect to plaintiff’s proposed amendments to the complaint, the court granted plaintiff’s motion to amend his complaint to add details regarding the fictional portions of the copyrighted material, finding that the proposed amended complaint merely fleshed out allegations that the court had already found sufficient. The court rejected the defendants’ argument that the court should disallow these allegations because they contradicted allegations in the original complaint that plaintiff’s story was a “bio-documentary” and relayed true events. While precedent supports the rejection of amended pleadings when they seek to assert blatant and flatly contradictory allegations, this was not the case with plaintiff’s proposed amendments. The shift from calling the copyrighted works a “bio-documentary” that includes the story of plaintiff’s life experiences to a “documentary” that tells plaintiff’s story was not a blatant reversal in allegations, according to the court.