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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Tillman v. New Line Cinema Corp., et al.

Pro se plaintiff Chitunda Tillman filed a copyright infringement claim against New Line Cinema and Time Warner Inc., claiming that the film John Q infringed his screenplay titled Kharisma (Heart of Gold) Based on Our True Story. The court granted summary judgment for the defendants.

The plaintiff claimed that John Q, which was released in 2002, infringed his copyright in his 1998 screenplay. The plaintiff registered his screenplay with the WGA and claimed that the writer of the screenplay on which the movie John Q was based worked for or was somehow affiliated with the WGA, that this writer stole the plaintiff’s screenplay and subsequently sold it – in the form of John Q – to New Line.

The defendants argued that the screenplay John Q was created before 1998, that the plaintiff failed to show the defendants had access to his screenplay and that the two works are not substantially similar, and the court agreed.

To support their contention that John Q pre-dated the plaintiff’s work, the defendants submitted an affidavit from screenwriter James Kearns, who stated that he wrote the screenplay for John Q in 1993, registered it with the WGA the same year, and registered the first revision of it with the WGA in 1994--several years before the plaintiff wrote Kharisma Heart of Gold. The defendants also produced a copy of an executed option agreement, a writer’s agreement, an inducement letter and affidavits from New Line Cinema executives as well as several entertainment industry articles that described the film’s development as further corroboration that the creation of John Q predated that of Kharisma Heart of Gold by five years.

The court accepted the defendants’ evidence and called the plaintiff’s evidence “unsupported conspiracy theories and conclusory accusations of lying.” The court also dismissed as unimportant that New Line did not copyright the screenplay for John Q until after 2000.

The court also found the plaintiff’s theory of access – premised on the belief that Kearns worked at or was affiliated with the WGA after the plaintiff registered his screenplay with the WGA and stole the work and subsequently sold it to New Line – as not credible.

Even though the court stated that the defendants’ evidence of independent creation of the John Q screenplay in 1993 was enough to grant summary judgment to the defendants, the court turned to the question of substantial similarity between the works. The plaintiff’s screenplay is about a wealthy businessman who discovers his daughter needs a series of operations to save her life, but the IRS has frozen his assets and his health insurance has lapsed so he is unable to pay for the surgery. He decides to take out a life insurance policy on himself and commits suicide, leaving his family with enough money to pay for the operations.

John Q tells the story of a factory worker whose son collapses during a baseball game. On the way to the emergency room, John learns that his son needs a heart transplant but his insurance company refuses to cover the cost. So John decides to hold everyone in the hospital emergency room hostage to force them to put his son on the transplant list and considers killing himself so that his heart can be used as the donor organ. In the end, the son receives a heart from a car accident victim and John Q is arrested and charged with kidnapping everyone he held hostage at the hospital.

After watching the film John Q and reading the screenplay Kharisma Heart of Gold, the court compared the works and concluded that no reasonable observer could find them substantially similar beyond a very general level.

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