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Acker v. King

District court dismisses copyright infringement and perjury suit brought by creator of short story The Haunting of Addie Longwood against best-selling author Stephen King, finding that plaintiff’s work was not substantially similar to King’s novel Doctor Sleep and that no civil cause of action for perjury exists under Connecticut law.

Plaintiff is the author of Short Tales of Killing Horror (Short Tales), a series of five unpublished short stories, one of which is titled The Haunting of Addie Longwood (Haunting). Haunting tells the tale of a 12-year-old girl named Jessica with psychic abilities who uses her abilities to solve a murder in a town called Ellsworth in Maine. Plaintiff registered a copyright to Short Tales and later mailed a copy to the best-selling author Stephen King. Stephen King’s assistant sent a letter acknowledging receipt of the manuscript, but stating that due to time constraints, it was “impossible to read and comment on unsolicited manuscripts.”

Plaintiff thereafter conducted Internet searches of King’s upcoming releases and discovered that he was publishing a novel titled Doctor Sleep, a sequel to his earlier work The Shining. Doctor Sleep includes a 12-year-old character named Abra Stone, who has psychic abilities. The story proceeds in three disparate segments that eventually converge. Abra and the main character, Dan Torrance, who also possesses psychic abilities, save a New Hampshire town from paranormal murders perpetrated by a vampire-like cult called True Knot.

Plaintiff sued King for copyright infringement, alleging that King copied Short Tales and Haunting in writing Doctor Sleep, and for perjury, alleging that King lied in stating that he did not know who plaintiff was. The court granted King’s motion to dismiss as to both claims.

First, plaintiff failed to allege direct evidence of copying by King. Assuming, however, that King had access to plaintiff’s manuscript for Short Tales or Haunting, no reasonable observer could find Doctor Sleep to be substantially similar to Haunting. Any similarities between Haunting, an 18-page manuscript, and Doctor Sleep, a 528-page novel, were non-protectable. The elements of a character type of a girl with psychic abilities, a New England town, a supernatural story, and using psychic abilities to save people are “scenes a faire” and flow naturally from the idea of a character using psychic abilities to triumph over evil. Similarities between Haunting and Doctor Sleep are also far outweighed by specific differences in plot, structure, themes, details, scenes, events, and characterization. Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining, incorporating elements and characters from The Shining, and unlike Haunting, Doctor Sleep tells a three-part story that spans decades and covers multiple themes. It tells the story of main character Dan Torrance’s alcoholism, Dan’s fear of becoming his father, Dan’s mentorship of Abra, Abra’s parents’ reaction to their child’s abilities, and Dan and Abra’s shared struggle to prevent their anger issues from destroying their relationships.

The court also dismissed plaintiff’s perjury claim, noting that there was no civil cause of action for perjury in Connecticut; even if a civil action did exist, King’s assistant’s letter acknowledging receipt of Short Tales would be insufficient to state a claim.