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Clements v. Screen Gems, Inc.

In a copyright infringement action, the court grants defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that the defendants’ film “Stomp the Yard” did not infringe plaintiff’s film “Steppin.”

Plaintiff Clifford Clements owns the copyright in the film entitled “Steppin”. “Steppin” chronicles the story of a student who is a talented dancer and who joins a fraternity at a historical black college. The student in “Steppin” participates in a dance competition as the underdog and eventually defeats his rival, the defending champion. The student also falls in love with a female character during the film.

The defendants Screen Gems, Inc., Screen Gems Productions, Inc., and their president Clint Culpepper created and developed the film “Stomp the Yard,” which shared similar plot, sequence of events, setting, and characters with “Steppin”. In September 2005, prior to the release of “Stomp the Yard,” Culpepper viewed approximately an hour of plaintiff’s film, which had completed principal photography.

Plaintiff sued defendants for copyright infringement, claiming that the similarities between “Steppin” and “Stomp the Yard” were sufficient to establish that defendants had infringed the protectable elements of plaintiff’s work. Additionally, the plaintiff sought to invoke the “inverse ratio rule,” arguing that Culpepper’s access to “Steppin” in 2005 should reduce the plaintiff’s burden of proving substantial similarity. The court disagreed.

The court found that the two works were not substantially similar with respect to any protectable elements. Applying the “extrinsic test,” the court determined that the similar elements between the works involved non-protectable elements such as historical fact, familiar stock scenes, and scenes a faire, which flow naturally from the basic plot premise. The protectable elements in the two works, namely the plot, theme, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters, and sequence of events, were not substantially similar.

Additionally, the court declined to apply the inverse ratio rule because Culpepper’s access to “Steppin” in 2005 did not constitute a sufficiently high degree of access to warrant invocation of the rule. Moreover, defendants independently created and developed “Stomp the Yard” prior to having any access to “Steppin”. More than a year prior to Culpepper’s access to “Steppin”, defendants had already purchased rights to “Stomp the Yard,” originally entitled “Step Show,” and had already developed several drafts of the screenplay. Accordingly, the court found that defendants had not infringed plaintiff’s copyright to “Steppin” and granted summary judgment for the defendants.