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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Thomas v. The Walt Disney Company, et al.

The plaintiff wrote a screenplay titled Squisher the Fish and sent a copy to the defendants; two months later, the defendants returned the screenplay, informing her that it was their business practice not to consider unsolicited outside story submissions. The plaintiff filed suit for copyright infringement and unfair competition under California § 17200 (breach of confidence); she alleged that during the time the defendants had her screenplay, they copied it and incorporated it into the movie Finding Nemo.

The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss. Regarding the copyright infringement claim, the court analyzed the two works, including the plot, sequence of events, mood and characters, and concluded that the two works were not substantially similar. Although the defendants’ movie and the plaintiff’s screenplay were both about a young fish who is captured by divers and placed in a fish tank, the court considered this to be a basic plot idea and not copyrightable. The plaintiff argued that the title characters are both “curious, inquisitive” and “cautioned ... to be wary of dangers” but the court reasoned that a young character who is inquisitive and whose curiosity leads him or her into danger can be considered an unprotectible stock character.

Regarding the claim for unfair competition under California Bus. and Prof. Code § 17200, the defendants argued that the plaintiff’s claim was preempted by the Copyright Act. Plaintiff argued that her claim differed from a copyright claim because she was alleging a breach of confidence. The court concluded that the plaintiff could not allege any confidential relationship and that, therefore, her § 17200 claim was equivalent to her infringement claim and preempted by the Copyright Act. The court also explained that defendants’ knowledge of the confidential nature of the information must precede the disclosure of the information and unless the plaintiff could plead any other communication between herself and the defendants that occurred prior to her submission of her story with the cover letter, there is no basis upon which such knowledge could be found.