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Prunte v. Universal Music Group, et al.

The District Court for the District of Columbia allowed defendants Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Viacom International to move for summary judgment in a copyright infringement action on the issue of substantial similarity without first having the parties engage in fact or expert discovery.

Defendants argued that their summary judgment motion would show that they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law because there was no genuine dispute of material fact as to the only issue in dispute - whether plaintiff’s works and defendants’ (allegedly infringing) works were “substantially similar.”

The court agreed with the defendants that discovery was unnecessary at the present stage of the litigation. The court explained that “substantial similarity” exists where “the accused work is so similar to the plaintiff’s work that an ordinary reasonable person would conclude that the defendant unlawfully appropriated the plaintiff’s protectable expression by taking material of substance and value.” Therefore, the court continued, summary judgment is appropriate in a “substantial similarity” context when “a rational trier of fact” could find that the works at issue are substantially similar.

In order to assess whether a rational fact-finder could determine that the plaintiff’s songs and the defendants’ songs are substantially similar, the court explained that it would have to decide whether “an ordinary person of reasonable attentiveness” could, upon listening to both parties’ songs, find that the defendants unlawfully appropriated the plaintiff’s protectable expression. According to the court, the only evidence necessary for such a determination consisted of recordings of the songs in question and transcriptions of all the lyrics in question. The court observed that discovery was hardly necessary to ensure that such evidence was in the record because the parties could share this evidence with each other and provide it to the court by way of a mutually agreeable arrangement. The court concluded that it would be inefficient and wasteful to permit discovery before resolving defendants’ anticipated motion for summary judgment.