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Benay, et al. v. Warner Bros. Entertainment, et al.

Plaintiffs wrote a screenplay titled The Last Samurai about a Civil War veteran who travels to Japan in the late 1800s and takes part in various battles in Japan before returning to the U.S. Plaintiffs’ agent orally pitched the idea to the defendant production company and allegedly sent a copy of the written screenplay to the production company in 2000; the production company later informed plaintiffs that they were not interested. In 2003, the production company and other defendants released the movie The Last Samurai. Plaintiffs filed suit for copyright infringement and for breach of implied contract.

On motions for summary judgment, the defendants did not contest plaintiffs’ ownership of a valid copyright registration or that defendants had access to plaintiffs’ screenplay, so the sole issue before the court was whether the two works were substantially similar. The court compared the plot, characters, theme, setting, pace and sequencing of the two works and concluded that they were not substantially similar. “Viewed as a whole, the basic elements of the two works have a slight resemblance to one another, and share some plot similarities: the Civil War veteran who travels to Japan; the Satsuma Rebellion; east meets west; the “fish-out-of-water”; and the appreciation of Japanese culture. Nevertheless, ‘[g]eneral plot ideas are not protected by copyright law; they remain forever the common property of artistic mankind’. . . . [H]ere, nearly all of the similarities between the works arise from noncopyrightable elements, such as historical facts and scenes a faire . . .” The court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the copyright infringement claim.

The court also granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ claim of breach of implied contract. The court explained that, to establish breach of an implied contract, the plaintiffs must show that the ideas allegedly used by the defendants were novel, unless it can be inferred from unequivocal conduct that the recipient of the idea agreed to pay for it even if the idea was not novel. The court noted that the defendants had provided evidence that the idea of a war officer from the West training the Imperial Army in Japan “is based on historical events, and thus is not novel.” The court also denied plaintiffs’ motion for default judgment for spoliation of evidence. The plaintiffs claimed that the defendants delayed in providing documents showing independent creation of their screenplay and that defendants altered such documents, such as letters between the writers and producers during development of the screenplay. The defendants admitted to producing all versions of relevant documents, some of which were different versions of the same documents. The court held that such conduct does not rise to the level of “bad faith or conduct tantamount to bad faith.”