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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Morawski v. Lightstorm Entertainment, Inc.

Ninth Circuit panel summarily affirms award of summary judgment in favor of James Cameron and Lightstorm Entertainment, rejecting plaintiff’s claims of breach of express contract, breach of implied-in-fact contract and fraud, where Cameron had presented detailed and copious evidence of “independent creation” of the film Avatar.

Gerald Morawski filed suit for breach of express contract, breach of implied-in-fact contract and fraud against Lightstorm Entertainment, Inc., and James Cameron, alleging that they created the blockbuster motion picture Avatar using ideas from a film that Morawski allegedly pitched to Cameron. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding that Cameron presented “detailed and copious” evidence of independent creation. Under California law, if a defendant presents clear and positive evidence of independent creation, any inference of use of another’s work arising from access and substantial similarity is dispelled and a plaintiff can no longer rely solely on that inference to establish improper use. Because Morawski relied entirely on the inference, his contract claim failed.

The appellate court also found that Morawski’s implied-in-fact contract claim failed because neither party disputed the existence of a valid express contract, and an action based on an implied-in-fact contract cannot lie when there is a valid express contract between the parties covering the same subject matter. Finally, the fraud claim failed because of the absence of affirmative evidence of intent to defraud at the time of contract formation.

Judge Christen dissented from the portion of the decision affirming the district court’s ruling on the issue of independent creation. According to Judge Christen, contested issues of fact precluded resolution of independent creation in the case at the summary judgment stage, given that under California law, an inference of use may be rebutted by evidence of independent creation that is clear, positive, uncontradicted, and of such a nature that it cannot rationally be disbelieved.

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