District court grants summary judgment dismissing screenwriter’s copyright infringement claims against producers of motion picture Avatar, finding that plaintiff had not raised a material factual dispute that defendants had access to his works, or that plaintiff’s works and Avatar were “substantially similar.”
Plaintiff Bryant Moore is a science fiction writer who has written works including the screenplays Aquatica and Descendants: The Pollination, which he registered with the copyright office in 1994 and 2003, respectively. Moore brought a copyright infringement action against a group of individuals and entities involved in creating the blockbuster motion picture Avatar. Moore alleged that defendants copied elements from his works and sought more than $1.5 billion in actual damages and over $1 billion in punitive damages.
Ruling on defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the district court concluded that Moore had not produced evidence sufficient to create a material fact as to defendants’ access to his works. Specifically, Moore had claimed that writer and director James Cameron had access to Moore’s works (as well as related copyrighted drawings) before he wrote the screenplay for Avatar. Moore alleged that he had submitted copies of the Aquatica script to Cameron’s business manager and to the creative director of Lightstorm Entertainment, the company that produced Avatar. He also alleged that he submitted related artwork to an intermediary allegedly connected to Cameron.
While Moore asserted that he had submitted scripts during the period from 1994 to 1996 to intermediaries who could have transmitted the scripts to Cameron, the court deemed the evidence too speculative, given the opposing testimony that the screenplay was never passed along to Cameron or anyone at Lightstorm. Moore also contended that he submitted scripts in the 2003 to 2005 period, but the evidence indicated that Cameron had already produced a “scriptment” containing the major elements of Avatar by 1996, rendering Moore’s later access arguments effectively moot. Moore attempted to rely on the “corporate receipt” doctrine to support an inference of access based on the fact that a Lightstorm employee had received a submission of Moore’s script. The court rejected Moore’s argument, finding that the employee did not have a close working relationship with Cameron and explicitly testified that he had never read Moore’s screenplays or discussed them with anyone at Lightstorm.
Having determined that Moore’s evidence of access was too speculative to survive summary judgment, the court nevertheless engaged in an analysis of the works’ “substantial similarity.” Assessing the works’ extrinsic similarity, the court concluded that “[a]ny similarities are limited to general stock themes, scenes a faire and ideas not subject to copyright protection.” Even on a very general level, the works’ plot, setting, characters and dialogue, and mood were markedly different. As to intrinsic similarity, the court concluded that the total “concept and feel” of the works was “palpably different.”
Finally, the court noted that even if Moore had succeeded in making a prima facie showing of infringement, defendants could nevertheless overcome the presumption of copying by demonstrating independent creation of Avatar. While the weakness of Moore’s evidence made it unnecessary for it to assess this element, the court noted that defendants had made a strong enough showing of independent creation to rebut any presumption of copying. Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment for defendants.
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