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ITN Flix v. Univision Holdings

In copyright dispute involving two films starring Danny Trejo as character seeking vengeance for family’s murder, district court dismisses infringement claims against Univision, saying copyright law protects expression of ideas, not ideas themselves.

Independent filmmakers Gil Medina and ITN Flix sued Univision Holdings Inc., El Rey Network LLC and others, alleging that by broadcasting the 2010 Danny Trejo film “Machete” and its sequel, the defendants infringed on their copyrights in their 2006 film “Vengeance,” also starring Trejo. The defendants moved to dismiss.

To establish copyright infringement, a plaintiff must prove (i) ownership of a valid copyright and (ii) the copying of constituent elements of the work that are original. Because direct proof of copying is rare, a plaintiff may establish the second prong by showing “[a] that the defendant had access to the copyrighted [work], and [b] that there are probative similarities between the copyrighted material and the allegedly copied material.”

The court noted that the only allegation in the complaint expressly stating “access” was that the producers of “Machete” had access to the copyrighted works. However, the defendants in this case were not the producers, but rather the broadcasters who showed the film on their respective networks. The district court thus analyzed whether the complaint sufficiently alleged “access” on the part of the broadcaster defendants.

The court focused on the plaintiffs’ arguments that access could be inferred because “Vengeance” and “Machete” are “strikingly similar.” The court rejected this argument, finding that although the plaintiffs’ 2006 film may share some ideas with “Machete,” copyright law protects only the expression of the idea and not the idea itself. The district court determined that the fact that both films are about a law enforcement officer seeking vengeance for his family’s murder, end with a scene between a priest and a “bad man,” and cast Trejo as the lead actor does not establish copyright infringement, because each of these elements is a general description of an idea, “not a particular allegation about a protected expression of the idea — how the priest is dressed, how he acts, what he says, for example.”

The district court pointed out that the plaintiffs did not allege specific lines of dialogue, costumes, scenery or other expressions were duplicated, but instead relied on only general conclusions that the defendants copied their film. The complaint must contain factual allegations about protected expressions, not merely conclusions that the general plot ideas or characters have been duplicated.

The district court also determined that because the plaintiffs failed to allege that any protectable elements of their film had been infringed, they also failed to establish that there is “probative similarity” between the films. Finally, the district court dismissed plaintiffs’ claims for “vicarious copyright infringement,” because the complaint failed to allege that someone other than the broadcasters had directly infringed the plaintiffs’ copyright — a requirement for vicarious or contributory liability. However, in dismissing the claims, the district court did grant leave for the plaintiffs to amend their complaint.