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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Green v. Harbach

District court grants dismissal of copyright infringement claim against author of novel The Art of Fielding, finding no substantial similarity between plaintiff’s unpublished manuscript and defendant’s novel because claimed similarities were either abstract ideas, scenes a faire or trivial details insignificant to each work.

Plaintiff Charles C. Green brought an action for copyright infringement against defendant Chad D. Harbach, alleging that defendant’s novel The Art of Fielding, published in 2011, infringed on Green’s unpublished manuscript Bucky’s 9th. The district court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss, finding that plaintiff could not establish a copyright infringement claim because the two works were not substantially similar.

Plaintiff’s work tells the story of Kenesaw “Bucky” Bucks, a former star pitcher at Princeton University, who struggles after the unexpected suicide of his father. Encouraged by an old friend of his father’s, Bucky re-enrolls in school at a small university for the deaf, where he plays baseball again. The novel focuses on Bucky’s attempts to cope with his father’s death and conceal his false identity at his new school. Plaintiff alleged that between 1994 and 2008, he created multiple iterations of Bucky’s and submitted these works to various individuals in the entertainment and publishing industries. Plaintiff also alleged that he registered with the Copyright Office a version of Bucky’s that was distributed to various publishers around 2006-2007.  

Defendant, on the other hand, began working on Fielding in 2000 and published the novel in 2011. The novel depicts a character named Henry Skrimshander, who joins the baseball team at a small liberal arts college and becomes a nationally recognized and recruited shortstop. Plaintiff’s lawsuit alleged that Fielding was substantially similar to Bucky’s in premise and setting, plot and structure, and other “startlingly shared content.”

The court affirmed that the question of substantial similarity is not always for the jury, if the only similarities are of non-protectable elements, or if no reasonable jury, properly instructed, could find that the works were substantially similar. The district court, after reviewing the underlying works, granted defendant’s motion to dismiss, finding that “the portions or features of Fielding that are alleged to be similar to Bucky’s are either abstract ideas, scenes a faire, or trivial details insignificant to … either of the two works.” The district court began by noting that the two works did share a few superficial similarities; they both featured “a struggling Division III baseball college team” and “track[ed] the baseball team’s changed fortunes after the arrival of a new player.” Beyond that, however, the district court found that the works completely diverged, particularly with respect to “why and how the new player … arrived at the team” and “the nature of the new player’s professional and personal development.”

The district court also analyzed the specific elements that plaintiff identified as evidence of the “substantial similarity” between the two works. Plaintiff argued that the two works shared “four common plot features,” including a “baseball prodigy-comes-of-age” plot, an “illicit romance” plot and an “intergenerational” plot. The district court found that these descriptions either inaccurately characterized each of the two works or represented “a strained attempt to impose structure where none is salient, evident or important to the works on the whole.” For example, the court explained, the protagonists of the works “came of age” in entirely different ways. In Bucky’s, the main character grappled with the aftermath of his father’s death and the challenges imposed by his pretending to be deaf. Fielding, on the other hand, focused on its protagonist’s struggle to navigate his newfound fame and notoriety as a baseball prodigy.

Finally, the district court rejected plaintiff’s “self-proclaimed strongest argument,” that the climax of each work — a championship game where the protagonist pinch-hits and gets beaned by the third pitch — follows a “lockstep sequence of events.” The court concluded that “whatever facial similarities [p]laintiff may point to, there is little in common between how the two beaning scenes function in each novel’s respective plot.”

The district court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss and dismissed the case entirely.

Summary prepared by Jonathan Zavin and Sara Slavin

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