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Gilbert v. New Line Productions, Inc., et al.

  • Court grants defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim in copyright infringement action brought by author of screenplay about a controlling mother in law against producers of the movie Monster in Law because there is no substantial similarity between the works; court also rejects plaintiff’s argument that the court should compare defendants’ movie to plaintiff’s unregistered version of the screenplay under the “relating back” doctrine.
Plaintiff wrote four versions of a screenplay for a motion picture called When Mom Is the Other Woman. She received copyright registration for the second, third and fourth versions. Plaintiff filed a copyright infringement action against the producers of the motion picture Monster in Law.

Defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim on the grounds that the defendants’ movie and plaintiff’s screenplay are not substantially similar. The court granted the defendants’ motion in its entirety.

The court conducted an extrinsic similarity analysis of the second version of plaintiff’s screenplay and the defendants’ movie, and held that there are some “generic similarities” between the works. Both works concern an over-controlling mother in law who schemes to keep her son from marrying his new-found girlfriend, and there were some minor similarities in those schemes. For example, both mothers in law investigate the future bride’s past, hoping that they will discover something that would induce their son to end the relationship; and both mothers in law also attempt to bring another attractive woman to their son’s attention to divert his focus away from the future bride.

According to the court, “these similarities pale, however, in comparison to vast differences in characters, plot, mood, and themes between the two works.” Plaintiff’s screenplay is a dark story, while defendant’s film is a comedy. The characters in the two works are quite different: the male character in plaintiff’s movie is weak and immature, lives with his mother, and is psychologically inseparable from her, while the corresponding character in defendants’ motion picture does not live with his mother, is a successful and happy professional, and is not submissive to his mother’s every request. In plaintiff’s screenplay, the mother in law is an unhappy woman who lives in a poor neighborhood while the mother in law in defendant’s movie is a successful professional who lives in an expensive estate. The girlfriend in the plaintiff’s screenplay is a journalist who has been passed over for a promotion and who is investigating a corporate scandal. In the defendants’ movie, the girlfriend is a dog-walker with artistic aspirations.

The court also held that, compared to the second version of plaintiff’s work, the third and fourth versions are much less similar to defendants’ movie, due to a series of subplots and secondary characters that take the later versions in an entirely new direction.

Finally, the court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the copyright registrations for the second, third, and fourth versions of her screenplay “relate back” to the first, such that plaintiff could bring a claim for infringement of the first version of her work even though the work is not registered. According to the court, other courts have at times found that registration of a derivative work relates back to the earlier versions when the earlier versions are included in the derivative. However, the court held that the “relating back” theory does not help plaintiff’s case survive the motion to dismiss. “To the extent that the later versions relate back to the first – meaning that they include the first version in whole or in part – the court has already evaluated the material and found that no substantial similarity exists. To the extent that plaintiff’s case depends on elements specific to the first screenplay, the later works cannot relate back, because they do not include the elements. Therefore, plaintiff may not resort to the first draft of her screenplay to defeat defendants’ motion to dismiss.”