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Loeb & Loeb Secures Motion to Dismiss in Copyright Infringement Action

Loeb & Loeb LLP secured a significant copyright victory on behalf of clients Steven Lutvak and Robert Freedman, when the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted a motion to dismiss a complaint alleging that the writers’ musical play infringed the copyright of a film based on an underlying work in the public domain.

The defendants entered into an agreement with Canal+ Image UK Ltd. (“Canal+”), the copyright owner of the classic comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, to adapt the film into a musical play. After Canal+ terminated the license, the writers learned that Kind Hearts was based on a 1907 novel that is in the public domain, and revised their play to maintain the plot of the novel while eliminating elements unique to the film. They retained, however, the conceit of having all of the play’s murder victims portrayed by a single actor. Canal+ claimed that the revised play infringed on their copyright and violated the parties’ contract, pointing in particular to the alleged infringement of the “expressive” concept of having a single actor playing all of the murder victims.

The case presented novel issues concerning precisely what is protectable when a famous creative work is based on an underlying work in the public domain, whether a theatrical conceit such as having one actor play multiple roles can be subject to copyright protection, and whether contractual claims are preempted by the Copyright Act. The Court granted Lutvak and Freedman’s motion to dismiss, concluding that elements of Kind Hearts taken from the underlying novel and the concept of a single actor playing multiple roles are not protectable, and that when non-protectable elements are removed from the equation the total concept and feel of the works was not similar. The Court also agreed that Canal+’s contract claims were preempted by the Copyright Act.

Loeb & Loeb partner Barry Slotnick, chair of the firm’s IP and Entertainment Litigation Practice represented Steven Lutvak and Robert Freedman in the suit.