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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Brittle v. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

District court denies motion to dismiss copyright claim alleging that New Line Productions’ “Conjuring” film series about paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren infringed prior book recounting “true story” of Warrens, but dismisses state law claims on pre-emption grounds.

Plaintiff Gerald Brittle brought suit against Warner Bros. Entertainment, its subsidiary New Line Productions and various others involved in the production and distribution of the films “The Conjuring,” “Annabelle” and “The Conjuring 2,” which were based on the “true stories” of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Brittle claimed that the films, released in 2013, 2014 and 2016, respectively, copied his book published in 1980 titled The Demonologist, also described as a “true story” about the Warrens, without his authorization. Pursuant to a written agreement between Brittle and the Warrens, they co-owned the copyright to the book, and Brittle alleged that they had further agreed that the unanimous consent of Brittle and the Warrens would be required before entering into any third-party contracts regarding rights in the book.

Brittle asserted claims for copyright infringement for each of the three movies, trespass to chattels, conversion, tortious interference with contract, statutory business conspiracy and false advertising under the Lanham Act. The court granted certain defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack for personal jurisdiction, and denied defendants’ motion to stay the action pending arbitration.

All the defendants also moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim with respect to all claims. The court denied the motion to dismiss the copyright claim. In a cursory discussion, the court held that “the movies plausibly copy some original elements from the book,” and “decline[d] the parties’ invitation to wade into the truth or falsity of the Warrens’ paranormal escapades or to parse the resulting similarities between the works at this stage of the case,” reasoning that this analysis involved factual determinations “better suited for summary judgment or trial.” The court granted the motion to dismiss Brittle’s “property-based” state law claims — trespass to chattels and conversion — holding that these claims were “not qualitatively different from the copyright infringement claims” and thus pre-empted by the Copyright Act. With respect to the “contract based” state law claims — tortious interference with contract and statutory business conspiracy — the court denied defendants’ motion to dismiss based on the statute of limitations, ruling that both the choice-of-law analysis and determination of when the claims accrued required factual development. Finally, the court dismissed the Lanham Act false advertising claim, which was based on the alleged falsity of the films’ representation that they were based on “true stories.” The court reasoned that Brittle’s book made the same representation, contradicting Brittle’s allegations that he suffered injury as a result of the allegedly false advertising, a necessary element of the claim.

Summary prepared by Wook Hwang and Sara Slavin

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