District court grants summary judgment for screenwriter and film companies in copyright infringement case, finding that plaintiff author lacked any evidence of access and that similarities between two screenplays were unprotectable stock elements and scenes-a-faire.
Plaintiff sued defendants, screenwriter Neill Blomkamp and various film production and distribution companies, for copyright infringement, alleging that the movie Elysium infringed on his copyright in his screenplay titled Butterfly Driver. Plaintiff first completed the draft in May 2005, revised it in 2007 and posted the entire screenplay on triggerstreet.com, a filmmaker-screenwriter website designed to link filmmakers and screenwriters with industry professionals. In 2013, he saw the film Elysium and concluded that the film infringed his copyright in Butterfly Driver with regard to features such as plot, characters, settings, and themes and initiated the lawsuit.
Both plaintiff and defendants moved for summary judgment. The court found that plaintiff failed to provide any evidence of access, as he relied on speculation that Blomkamp had seen the screenplay on triggerstreet.com, a website designed to bring aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers together. Defendants contended that plaintiff alleged no facts to support his claim that Blomkamp accessed the screenplay on triggerstreet.com and produced no evidence that any defendant had a reasonable opportunity or reasonable possibility of viewing the screenplay. The court agreed with the defendants, finding that the plaintiff relied solely on his complaint’s allegations, which are not evidence that can be used to support or oppose summary judgment, and that those allegations were entirely speculative as they relate to access. The court specifically found that posting the plaintiff’s screenplay to triggerstreet.com did not constitute widespread dissemination of the work.
Had plaintiff provided some evidence of access (even circumstantial), he could potentially show infringement by demonstrating that the two works were substantially similar. Because plaintiff lacked any evidence of access, he could establish copyright infringement only by showing striking similarity, a high bar that requires the plaintiff to show that it is impossible that the two works could have been independently created. In a detailed side-by-side analysis of the works, the court rejected the notion that the works were strikingly similar. Evaluating the works’ plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters and sequence of events, the court concluded that despite some superficial similarities, the works’ protectable elements lacked real similarity. While both works contained a variety of sci-fi elements and, among other things, a hero within the same age range, many of the alleged similarities were generic features and not protectable. The court noted that there are a number of important characters in each work that have no parallel in the other and found that the setting of the Butterfly Driver screenplay is not similar to the setting of Elysium, except at the most abstract level.
Accordingly, the court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that plaintiff failed to show access and that the two works were not even substantially similar, let alone strikingly similar.