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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Kimbell v. Rock, et al.

Court denies plaintiff’s motion for a temporary restraining order enjoining defendant producers from distributing and marketing their motion picture called Good Hair because plaintiff’s request is untimely and her copyright infringement claim lacks merit

Plaintiff is the producer of an award-winning documentary about black hair called My Nappy Roots.

Defendants Chris Rock and HBO produced a comedy-documentary about black hair called Good Hair. Both movies featured coverage of the Bonner Bros. International Hair Show and Convention where contestants demonstrate their hair-styling skills on African American women. Both movies also contain interviews with hair care pioneers and doctors, and contain segments focusing on the business of black hair care and one source for hair weaves located in India. Defendants’ movie was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009.

Plaintiff filed suit for copyright infringement, alleging that defendants, who admitted they viewed plaintiff’s movie in 2007, copied several elements of her documentary. Plaintiff moved for a temporary restraining order prohibiting the release of defendants’ film. The court denied plaintiff’s motion on two grounds: that it was untimely and that plaintiff’s copyright infringement claim lacked merit. The court stated that even though plaintiff was aware as early as August 2009 that defendants intended to distribute their motion picture in October, plaintiff waited until “a mere four days” before Good Hair was set to be released in theatres before filing her request for a TRO. As such, the court held that plaintiff’s “eleventh hour” request is untimely.

The court also held that once the court filtered out the elements of Good Hair that existed in treatment form before defendants viewed plaintiff’s documentary, there is not enough evidence of substantial similarity to establish the requisite likelihood of success on the merits. According to the court, it is clear the movies are not substantially similar in terms of their theme, plot, sequence of events, characters, dialogue, setting, mood and pace. “Good Hair is a comedic documentary that follows the Bonner Bros. contest . . . [and] focuses on contemporary issues of black hair care, and relies on Chris Rock’s shtick of combining comic incredulity with a respect for the underlying subject matter. My Nappy Roots, in contrast, takes a serious and holistic view of black hair care throughout history.” The court noted that plaintiff’s movie has won multiple awards and that plaintiff is now treated as an authority on the history and social dynamics of black hair.

The court granted plaintiff’s request for expedited discovery, “even though her own allegations in this application strongly suggest she will be unable to establish that she is entitled to a preliminary injunction.”