Blinding Edge, Apple, and M. Night Shyamalan Awarded $162,467 After Defeating Copyright Claims

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On January 15, 2020, director Francesca Gregorini filed suit against Apple, Blinding Edge Pictures, and M. Night Shyamalan, who produced the television series "Servant." Gregorini alleged that "Servant" infringed the copyright of her 2013 feature film, "The Truth About Emanuel" ("Emanuel").

Judge John F. Walter of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California disagreed and dismissed the action with prejudice, agreeing with the defendants that "many of the alleged similarities in the First Amended Complaint are mischaracterizations of one or both of the works at issue, stock scenes, or scenes a faire." Gregorini v. Apple Inc., et al., Case No. 2:20-cv-00406-JFW-JC (C.D. Cal.).

"Servant" and "Emanuel" Compared

Central to the lawsuit are the two works: Gregorini's film "Emanuel" and the television series "Servant."

"Emanuel" is an "emotional story about motherhood and daughterhood" told from the point of view of a teenager, Emanuel, who struggles with the guilt of knowing her mother died giving birth to her. Throughout the film, she takes the train to her job at a medical supply store, listening to music or sitting with her boyfriend, Claude. Later, Emanuel meets her new next-door neighbor, Linda, who oddly resembles Emanuel's deceased mother.

Emanuel offers to babysit Linda's baby only to discover that the child is actually a doll. Despite this, she continues to visit Linda when she is not working or with her family or boyfriend. Emanuel pretends the doll is a baby in Linda's presence, but generally not when Linda is gone. The plot centers on what the plaintiff calls the "maternal relationship between Emanuel and Linda, [and] Emanuel's attempts to keep others from discovering Linda's delusion."

"Servant," by contrast, is a psychological thriller that portrays a wealthy couple, Dorothy and Sean Turner, who hire a full-time, live-in nanny, Leanne, for their baby son, Jericho, which—as the audience already knows from the trailer—is a doll given to Dorothy to cope with the loss of their child. From the outset, viewers realize that Leanne is no ordinary teenager, but instead a creepy, deeply religious, possibly paranormal, self-flagellating cult member who subsists on cans of tomato soup and creates wooden crosses (and who, the audience later learns, specifically targeted the Turners).

When Leanne first meets the doll, she picks it up like a real baby, sings to it, changes its diaper, and never treats it as anything other than a living child even when nobody is watching and despite Sean telling Leanne she need not pretend around him. Throughout the series, after Leanne's arrival, numerous paranormal events occur (e.g., Sean discovers splinters in unusual places and loses his sense of taste).

Plaintiff's Claims

Gregorini claimed that episodes 1 through 3 of "Servant" were a "wholesale copy and unauthorized television adaptation" of "Emanuel" because both purportedly share the premise of "a mother so traumatized by her baby's death that she cares for a doll she believes to be a real baby"—a premise that the plaintiff herself admitted is unprotectable under copyright law. Gregorini brought claims for direct, contributory, and vicarious copyright infringement.

Defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that the copyright-infringement claim fails as a matter of law because the works are not substantially similar.

Court's Analysis and Decision

In analyzing the motion, the court applied the 9th Circuit's extrinsic test to determine whether "Emanuel" and "Servant" were substantially similar. After reviewing the two, the court explained that "[b]eyond [the] unprotectable shared premise, the works' storylines diverge drastically and quickly" and dismissed the copyright claims with prejudice. The court also took judicial notice that "many expressive works feature (a) a character treating a doll as their child, and/or (b) the premise of hiring a nanny or babysitter" as "common premises or features [that] are not subject to reasonable dispute."

Under the extrinsic test, the court asked "whether the protectible elements, standing alone, are substantially similar." Comparing the protectable elements of the works, the court found that "the works pale in comparison to the differences in the plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters, and sequence of events." As the court put it, "though Emanuel and Episodes 1 through 3 of Servant share a basic plot premise, they tell completely different stories."

In comparing the characters Emanuel and Leanne, the court noted a few superficial similarities (both are attractive, white, 18-year-old girls who have long dark hair and blue eyes), but ultimately concluded they "are almost nothing alike." The court found that while Leanne is a deeply religious live-in nanny with paranormal powers that seemingly brings a doll to life, Emanuel is a "quintessential teenager" grieving her mother and humoring her new neighbor by pretending the neighbor's doll is a real baby.

He emphasized that in "Emanuel," unlike in "Servant," the doll never comes to life, despite Gregorini's mischaracterization to the contrary. The court also rejected Gregorini's laundry list of other alleged similarities between the works because they were "mischaracterizations of one or both of the works at issue, stock scenes, or scenes a faire."

On June 29, 2020, Gregorini filed a notice of appeal of the court's May 28, 2020, order granting defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's first amended complaint.

Defendants Recover Attorneys' Fees

On July 21, 2020, the court granted the defendants' motion for attorneys' fees, ordering the plaintiff to pay $162,467.30. The court emphasized the objective unreasonableness of the plaintiff's claims, finding that "[s]imply reviewing the two works makes clear that Servant did not copy protectable elements of Emanuel." Moreover, the court derided the plaintiff's submission of "a list of scattered similarities, many of which the Court found to be 'mischaracterizations of one or both the works at issue,' in an attempt to twist two highly dissimilar works into similarity."

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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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