Ninth Circuit affirms dismissal of copyright infringement suit by writer alleging that film What Men Want infringed his screenplay, confirming district court’s ruling that works were not substantially similar as matter of law.
Screenwriter Joe Gregory Carlini sued Paramount Pictures and a number of other defendants in 2019 for copyright infringement over their release of the film What Men Want, a romantic comedy premised on a woman who gains the ability to hear men’s thoughts and uses her mind-reading powers to further her career. Carlini alleged that WMW infringed the copyright in his coauthored, unpublished screenplay What the F Is He Thinking? After the district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss, Carlini appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the lower court’s decision. The Ninth Circuit held that Carlini had failed to allege that the two works were substantially similar and that WMW and WTF were not substantially similar as a matter of law.
The Ninth Circuit applied the governing “extrinsic test” and concluded that the respective plots of WMW and WTF were not substantially similar. The appellate court noted that beyond the basic and unprotectable general concept of a woman who gains the ability to hear men’s thoughts, the stories diverged significantly, with WMW primarily portraying the protagonist navigating her career, while WTF focused on being in relationships with the wrong people.
The Ninth Circuit also reasoned that the sequence of events in each work played out in materially different ways, including the key sequences in which the main characters attained their mind-reading powers, and that the protagonists themselves were largely dissimilar, with Carlini’s character being a young junior high school teacher and defendants’ film featuring a high-powered, career-obsessed sports agent. The court further ruled that any minor similarities Carlini identified in the personalities of supporting characters or the two works’ settings, dialogue and mood comprised generic and common elements necessary to all romantic comedies, which cannot sustain a finding of infringement.
Summary prepared by David Grossman and Jordan Meddy