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Thayil v. Fox Broadcasting

District court dismisses plaintiff’s complaint accusing producers of American Idol and other reality competition shows of stealing his ideas and infringing his copyrights, holding that the allegedly stolen elements were not copyrightable, and that plaintiff’s conclusory allegations did not suffice to state a claim.

Pro se plaintiff Paul Thayil created a marketing plan outlining his concepts for two projects, “Musicflow” (a multicity tour of amateur musicians) and “ShyDancer” (a television show that would air selected home videos of participants dancing in their own homes). Plaintiff brought suit against defendants, creators and producers of four entertainment competition shows –American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, America's Got Talent and Dancing with the Stars – alleging various claims including copyright infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets, unfair competition, fraud, conspiracy to defraud, and violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO). Plaintiff claimed that defendants rejected the submission of his marketing plan and then used his ideas in their own shows.

Plaintiff asserted that defendants used various aspects from the marketing plan, including meetings with investors to generate funds and partnerships for the shows, choosing judges, inviting musicians to take part in the shows, working with other major companies across the United States, after an audition, having contestants use the phrases “going to Hollywood” or “not going to Hollywood,” encouraging contestants to travel between cities, encouraging contestants to reach the top group of competitors, choosing music for performances on the shows, and using American Idol as a mechanism to discover new talent so that defendants could exploit and benefit from their record sales. Plaintiff also alleged that defendants misappropriated the essence of his “Musicflow” idea – that young amateur musicians be given exposure in major cities, with the end result that they are able to market their music. The district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss all of plaintiff’s claims, finding that the plaintiff “fail[ed] to make factual assertions to support his generalized accusations of defendants’ wrongdoing.” Rather, plaintiff’s complaint was “filled with conclusory allegations of wrongdoing and violation of various laws, which are unsupported by factual assertions that would allow this court to draw a reasonable inference that defendants are liable for the alleged misconduct.”

With respect to plaintiff’s copyright claim, the court found that, even taking as true plaintiff’s factual allegations in support of his assertions that defendants had access to and had copied his marketing plan, plaintiff failed to plead any factual allegations to support a finding that those elements of his plan that defendants allegedly copied were protected by copyright or that the alleged copying by defendants amounted to an unlawful taking. At the outset, the court noted that, to the extent that plaintiff asserted claims based on defendants’ alleged misappropriation of ideas, his copyright claim must be dismissed. The remaining elements that plaintiff claimed defendants misappropriated from his marketing plan – having meetings with investors and choosing judges, for example – were generalized strategies or actions, ones that the court found reasonably would be undertaken by anyone seeking to create a competitive reality show using amateur performers, and were not protectable expressions. The court also noted that the two expressions plaintiff claimed defendants misappropriated – “going to Hollywood” and “not going to Hollywood” – did not appear in the his marketing plan.

The court also dismissed plaintiff’s misappropriation of trade secrets and unfair competition claims under New York law, finding that Thayil had failed to allege facts in support of those claims. Specifically, the court found that his unsupported and conclusory allegations that he, at all times, considered the marketing plan to be a trade secret, that he provided it to defendants as a trade secret or that they understood that it was a trade secret, were not entitled to a presumption of truth. Plaintiff failed to allege that he protected his marketing plan in a way consistent with the protection of a trade secret or that when he gave the plan to defendants, he delivered it with an expectation of confidentiality that defendants agreed to or understood. Plaintiff likewise failed to adequately state a claim for unfair competition, since he did not allege facts that would allow the court to draw the inference that he owned a property right or commercial advantage in his marketing plan that defendants appropriated. The court noted that Thayil did not exclusively own a property right in the idea of exploiting amateur performers, nor the exclusive right to benefit from such general activities as meeting with investors to generate funds and partnerships.

The district court dismissed plaintiff’s complaint with prejudice, finding it “beyond cavil that given the opportunity to amend, Thayil would not be able to cure the deficient pleading[,]” especially in light of his previous unsuccessful suit, which the Missouri district court dismissed.