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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Purohit v. Legend Pictures, LLC

In copyright infringement suit alleging that defendants’ film infringed on plaintiff’s book featuring mythological figure Krampus, district court dismisses plaintiff’s claims, finding no substantial similarity between works and ruling that plaintiff’s claimed similarities related to unprotectable ideas, such as addition of clawed hands and red coat to existing mythological creature.

Plaintiff Kalyan Purohit, author of the book The Krampus Night Before Christmas, brought suit against defendants, entities involved in the production and distribution of the 2015 motion picture Krampus, alleging claims for direct copyright infringement, indirect copyright infringement and violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act. Krampus is an anthropomorphic folklore character who serves as the devilish foil of Saint Nicholas. Plaintiff’s 2012 book, which the court found was a parody of Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” tells the story of a family’s visit from Krampus. Plaintiff also created a YouTube video that consisted of a voice-over reading the text accompanying the book’s illustrations.

On defendant’s motion, the court dismissed plaintiff’s claims based on the lack of legal similarity between the works. The court held that to succeed on a direct copyright infringement claim, plaintiff must show unauthorized copying, which requires two elements: material appropriation and actual copying. Material appropriation turns on whether the allegedly infringing work has “substantial similarity” with the protectable elements from the copyrighted work, filtering out the elements of the original work that are not protectable. Under the scenes a faire doctrine, some elements are unprotectable because they are standard expressions that logically flow from a general idea.

The court found that the elements that plaintiff argued demonstrated legal similarity were not protectable. Plaintiff’s depiction of Krampus with distinguishing features such as horns, a pronounced hunch, a long beard and glowing slanted eyes were deemed scenes a faire because they were “too common and generic and flowed directly from historical depictions of Krampus and themes of Christmas and horror entertainment.” Although the film’s Krampus had some of those features, the court held that these elements were not sufficiently distinctive to allow for copyright protection.

The “total concept and feel” of the two Krampus expressions also did not show substantial similarity. The court held that the differences between the book and the film in the manner and method of Krampus’ appearance and conduct made the characters significantly different in the two works.

Because the court found that defendant was not liable for direct infringement, the court dismissed the claim for indirect infringement. The court also dismissed plaintiff’s claim for violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act, holding that the clear terms of the statute precluded protection for books such as plaintiff’s registered work and applied only to limited-edition works of art.

Summary prepared by David Grossman and Jong-min Choi