After granting summary judgment to film producers on plaintiff’s copyright infringement claim, court finds that attorney’s fees for defendants are appropriate because plaintiff’s claim was frivolous and objectively unreasonable, but court reduces amount of fees to $40,000 in light of plaintiff’s financial standing.
James Muller sued Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., Paul Anderson and Davis Entertainment, claiming that the film “AVP: Alien v. Predator” infringed his screenplay titled “The Lost Continent.” The court’s March 2011 order granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, holding that defendants’ film was independently created and that no reasonable jury could find probative or striking similarity between the film and plaintiff’s screenplay.
Defendants then moved for attorney’s fees and costs under Section 505 of the Copyright Act. In this decision, the court held that Muller’s claim was frivolous and objectively unreasonable for three reasons: (1) the film and the screenplay tell very different stories; (2) Muller’s claim that copying could be inferred from an alleged striking similarity between the two works was “ill conceived from the outset” (stating that the mere existence of multiple similarities is insufficient to meet the test for striking similarity); and (3) the only similarities between the two works were unprotectible.
Having determined that an award of attorney’s fees is appropriate, the court then turned to the issue of the amount of the award. Defendants contended that the presumptively reasonable amount of attorney’s fees is $432,077.45, but defendants requested only $150,000 in attorney’s fees, “in light of the belief that the lesser award will adequately serve the statutory goals of compensation and deterrence.”
The court accepted the amount of $150,000 as a reasonable amount, but explained that a court may, in its discretion, reduce the award to reflect the relative financial strength of the parties. The court stated that while an award of attorney’s fees is necessary to deter objectively unreasonable copyright infringement claims in the future, “the goals of the Copyright Act would not be promoted by bringing about Muller's financial ruin.” On the other hand, the court continued, individuals who bring objectively unreasonable claims should not be given a “free pass.” In light of Muller’s financial standing, the objective unreasonableness of his claim, and the goals of the Copyright Act, the court reduced the amount of attorney’s fees to $40,000.