Screenplay author Joseph Nobile brought an action against defendant Margot Louise Watts, writing under the pseudonym M.L. Stedman, and four publisher and film production defendants, alleging that Watts’ New York Times bestselling 2012 novel The Light Between Oceans infringed Nobile’s copyright in his unpublished screenplay “The Rootcutter,” which he registered with the Copyright Office in 2004. “The Light Between Oceans” was published by defendant Simon & Schuster Inc. and produced and distributed as a film by DreamWorks II Development Co. and American Broadcasting Co. Inc. The district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss Nobile’s copyright infringement claim, determining, after analyzing the screenplay and novel, that the works were not substantially similar. Because the film was based directly on the novel and the plaintiff did not allege any independent copying by the film, the court did not analyze the film separately.
Nobile’s work describes the story of a barren couple living on a rugged island off the coast of Ireland. The story includes the scene of a “traumatic and violent stillborn birth.” Later, the husband finds a woman in labor on a sailboat by the shore. The husband assists in the delivery, after which the woman dies. The husband decides to keep the baby boy and persuades his wife to do so as well. The couple attempts to leave the island with the baby, but they are caught in a sudden storm, during which the baby falls from a steep hill and dies. The Light Between Oceans explores the lives of a couple maintaining a lighthouse on an island off the coast of Australia. The wife suffers two miscarriages and delivers a stillborn child. One day, the couple finds a small boat containing a baby girl and a dead man. The wife decides to keep the baby, and the couple raises her for four years on the island. On the mainland, the couple’s secret is discovered, and the girl is returned to her birth mother.
The court analyzed the two works’ plot, sequence, pace, setting, characters, theme and “total concept and feel” to determine whether Watts’ novel illegally copied from “The Rootcutter.” As to the pace of the works, “The Rootcutter” covers a period of a few weeks, while “The Light Between Oceans” covers decades. The court found that while certain plot elements are similar (a childless couple finding a baby in a boat), the scene of the delivery of the baby by the husband in “The Rootcutter” is “violent,” while the discovery of the baby in Watts’ novel is an “almost peaceful” scene. Nobile alleged that the works contain a common sequence of events — such as a stillbirth with the mother “leaving a trail of blood on the floor” and the mother trying to hold the dead child after delivery. However, the court found these to be unprotectable scènes à faire. The court also found that the setting of a “remote storm-swept island” is not protectable and that The Light Between Oceans differs from “The Rootcutter” in that much of the book takes place on the mainland.
Noting the high bar to establish substantial similarity among characters, the court found that the wife and husband in the screenplay are archetypes rather than well-developed characters, and to the extent their characters are developed, they are different from the couple in The Light Between Oceans. In addition, the novel contains well-developed supporting characters, which the “The Rootcutter” lacks. The court observed that the works have a similar theme of the consequences of a couple taking a child as their own when they cannot bear their own children, but it held that this is an uncopyrightable concept. As to the “total concept and feel” of the works, the court stated that the stories were very different in theme, pace and detail of characters. Nobile argued that the “total concept and feel” standard was met, since he alleged that Watts had copied verbatim from his screenplay. The court found, however, that there were only four words repeated in Watts’ work (“I hate this place”) and only five phrases in common between the two works, and the plaintiff therefore had not established that a different standard should apply.
Ultimately the court held that after screening out unprotectable elements, the screenplay and novel were not substantially similar, and it dismissed the plaintiff’s copyright infringement action.
Summary prepared by Tal Dickstein and Joel Ernst