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Alexander v. Murdoch

Second Circuit affirms dismissal of plaintiff’s copyright infringement and other claims against defendants, creators and producers of television series Modern Family, finding no substantial similarity between the show and plaintiff’s copyrighted treatment and pilot script for a television series.

Plaintiff Martin Alexander, acting pro se, filed suit against defendants, the producers of the television comedy series Modern Family, asserting copyright infringement, as well as various related state law claims, based on allegations that defendants copied his copyrighted pilot treatment for a television show he titled Loony Ben. The district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claims, finding that no substantial similarity existed between Loony Ben and Modern Family. (Read our summary of the district court’s decision here.) On appeal, the Second Circuit, in a summary order, affirmed the district court’s dismissal, agreeing with the magistrate judge’s “thoroughly articulated reasoning.”

Noting that the appropriate inquiry is whether the alleged copying of protectable elements is “quantitatively and qualitatively sufficient to support a finding of infringement,” based on an examination of similarities in elements of the works including the total concept and feel, theme, characters, plot, sequence, pace and setting, the court agreed with the lower court that “the sparse and minor similarities between the allegedly infringing work—the television series Modern Family—and the copyrighted work—the pilot treatment for the television series Loony Ben—are insufficient to establish infringement.” The appeals court held that the two works shared common concepts only at the most general level, insufficient to support a finding of similarity. In addition, the appeals court found that any overlapping character traits and plot aspects plaintiff alleged amounted to superficial and de minimis details, involved general abstractions insufficient to merit protection or were unprotectible scènes à faire standard to a work about family life.

The court also declined plaintiff’s request to impose sanctions against defendants, concluding that plaintiff’s allegations of defendants’ misconduct were either “wholly unsupported by the record or demonstrably false.”