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Dickerson v. WB Studio Enterprises, Inc., et al.

District court dismisses copyright infringement suit against owners of “Barbershop”film and television franchise by writer of religious-themed play (also set in barbershop), finding that overall concept and feel of works were not substantially similar and that specific elements claimed to have been infringed were non-protectable stock elements.

Plaintiff Ronald Dickerson filed a lawsuit against defendants Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc., Showtime Networks, Inc. and WB Studio Enterprises, Inc., alleging that defendants’ “Barbershop” franchise infringes his copyright in a play, “Scissors Cut the Devil Loose,” and a video recording of the play. Defendants moved to dismiss the first amended complaint for failure to state a cause of action, arguing that Dickerson did not adequately allege that the works are substantially similar. After comparing the works and holding that as a matter of law, the total concept and overall feel of the works are not substantially similar, the district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss.

The district court summarized the storyline of “Scissors Cut the Devil Loose” – which involves characters who work in a barbershop, a car accident and a fight – and determined that it is a dramatic work with humorous elements, a religious message, and themes of fatherhood, sickness, forgiveness and salvation. In contrast, the court summarized the storyline of the original “Barbershop” film, released in 2002, and found it to be a fundamentally comedic film with no religious themes which also happens to involve a barbershop. The primary dramatic tension in the “Barbershop” film involves the potential loss of the barbershop and the efforts of Calvin, the main character, to save the establishment.

At the outset, the court noted that a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim for copyright infringement should be granted when the similarity between the works extends only to non-copyrightable elements or if no reasonable jury could find that the works are substantially similar. When a work contains both protectable and non-protectable elements, the analysis of the works should be more discerning, and non-protectable elements, such as scenes a faire (scenes that necessarily result from the setting or situation), should be extracted before considering whether the alleged infringing work is substantially similar to the original work. The district court also noted that the total concept and overall feel of the works may also determine whether substantial similarity exists between the works.

Using these guides, the district court determined that as a matter of law, “Barbershop” is not substantially similar to either the script or recording of “Scissors Cut the Devil Loose.”  Finding a difference in the overall feel and themes of the works — one being dramatic with religious themes, and the other being a comedy with no religious themes — the district court found that the differences were plain to see. The court also found that the specific elements that Dickerson alleged were copied were scenes a faire, or stock elements, such as the setting of a barbershop. Likewise, the court found that while both works contained ensemble dance sequences, those sequences were not similar in the contexts of the two works and that a shared line of similar dialogue did not evidence direct copying, both because the words were different and because these lines were also non-protectable stock elements.

Finding that no average lay observer of the two works could find them to be substantially similar, the district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Summary prepared by David Grossman and Kyle Petersen