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Kaye v. Cartoon Network, Inc.

District court dismisses copyright claim alleging that Cartoon Network’s television series “Steven Universe” infringed plaintiff’s comic book series Amphoman, holding that works were not substantially similar as matter of law.

Plaintiff Michael Richard Kaye brought suit against defendants The Cartoon Network Inc., Turner Broadcasting System Inc., Boom Entertainment Inc. and the creators of the animated television show “Steven Universe,” asserting a single claim for copyright infringement based on allegations that the show infringed plaintiff’s copyrights in his Amphoman works, a self-published superhero comic book series premised on the concept of space gems that give people magical powers associated with particular animals. Defendants’ “Stephen Universe” is about anthropomorphic space beings called “Crystal Gems” who have magical powers symbolized by gems embedded in them. 

Defendants’ moved to dismiss on the basis that the parties’ works are not substantially similar as a matter of law. The district court agreed and dismissed plaintiff’s claim with prejudice. The court noted the Second Circuit’s “ordinary observer” standard for substantial similarity, but explained that when works include both protectable and unprotectable elements, a “more discerning” test must be applied to account for the lack of copyright protection to certain shared elements appearing in the parties’ works. In conducting these tests, the court explained, it must evaluate the total concept and feel, themes, characters, plots, sequence, pace and setting of the works. This is especially important, the court noted, in actions involving children’s works, which “are often less complex than those aimed at an adult audience.”

Applying these standards, the court noted that while the works shared a “core similarity” in that “both employ characters associated with magical gems,” the works used that concept in different ways. In Amphoman, gems are inanimate objects from space that fuse to humans’ foreheads and temporarily impart superpowers to them when activated by a “trigger” event. For example, the titular character of Amphoman finds a gemstone, which, upon coming into contact with water, transforms the character into the half-man, half-frog superhero Amphoman. In contrast, in “Steven Universe,” gems are anthropomorphic characters. The show’s titular character Steven lives with three “Crystal Gem” female guardians — Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl — and although the Crystal Gems also have magical powers, they are born with those powers, wield them of their own volition and do not require a trigger event to activate them. The court also noted the additional difference in concept that, in Amphoman, gems typically cause humans to transform into malevolent super-villains, while in “Steven Universe,” the Crystal Gems are the story’s heroines, helping to raise Steven and protect Earth from evil forces. Though the works’ plots both involved protagonists fighting and defeating villains, the court concluded that such a common storyline constitutes non-actionable “scenes a faire common to superhero works, as well as many other genres.” Beyond that superficial similarity, the court concluded, the plots were dissimilar in other ways, including that “Steven Universe” is a coming-of-age story while Amphoman is not.

The court also found no substantial similarity between the works’ characters. The court rejected the plaintiff’s attempt to liken Steven to Amphoman’s human alter ego, Dr. Ulrius Joules, as the more apt comparison was between the works’ respective protagonists, Steven and Amphoman. Noting that the bar for substantial similarity in characters is “set quite high,” the court held the protagonists bore no resemblance to one another. Among other things, Amphoman has a traditional superhero physique, wears a tight outfit and has a small green gemstone in his forehead. Steven, by contrast, wears a T-shirt and jeans and has a pink gemstone where his belly button should be. The court also highlighted differences in those characters’ personality traits: Steven is a cheerful child with childish interests (ice cream sandwiches, video games, playdates), while Amphoman is “an acerbic adult struggling with the trauma of his own terminal illness” who complains about various financial woes. Other characters, the court held, were also dissimilar. For example, nearly all the other characters in Amphoman are “male, ‘macho,’ indifferent to women or misogynistic,” whereas in “Steven Universe,” the Crystal Gems are “compassionate caring females who spend their days protecting Earth and its citizens.” As for the works’ settings, the court observed they were “superficially similar” — Amphoman is set in Fort Lauderdale, “Steven Universe” in the fictional town of “Beach City” — but concluded that the superficial similarity was not substantial considering the relative unimportance of the setting in both works and the various other differences in the settings’ details.

Considering the works’ “total concept and feel,” the court stated that their differences were “starkest when analyzed at the macro level.” Among other things, the dramatic difference in length reflected that the authors did not similarly select, coordinate and arrange the works’ elements. The court also highlighted differences in the works’ themes, noting that “Steven Universe” is designed for young children, tells an optimistic and essentially happy story, and is dotted with musical comedy numbers, whereas Amphoman is a “dark series intended for adults” and contains sexual content and adult language.

The court also rejected a list of 60 purported similarities between Amphoman and “Steven Universe” that the plaintiff appended to his complaint. Many of those similarities, the court concluded, are too general to impact the substantial similarity analysis (e.g., “gems come in different shapes”), and other purported similarities proved false upon examination of the works (e.g., appeared only in Amphoman, not in “Steven Universe”). The court independently identified other “isolated similarities” not on the plaintiff’s list, but concluded that those too failed to provide a sufficient basis for a reasonable jury to find substantial similarity between the works’ “total concept and overall feel.”

Finally, the court denied plaintiff’s request for leave to amend his complaint, “because a finding of a lack of substantial similarity turns on the works themselves and not on the artfulness or sufficiency of the pleading,” and that “[n]o revised pleading could cure the fundamental infirmity in Plaintiff’s case.” Accordingly, the case was dismissed with prejudice.

Summary prepared by Wook Hwang and Frank D’Angelo