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Brown v. Time Warner, Inc.

District court grants motion to dismiss copyright infringement claim alleging that Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim’s series “Black Jesus” infringed copyright in plaintiff’s short story “Thank You, Jesus,” holding that works were not substantially similar as a matter of law.

Randy Brown, a/k/a Saint Solomon, brought suit against the producers, distributors and creators of the television show “Black Jesus,” which airs during Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block. Plaintiff claimed that the show infringed his copyright in his short story “Thank You, Jesus,” published as part of a collection titled Uncle Sam’s Nieces and Nephews. The district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss, holding that “Black Jesus” is not substantially similar to “Thank You, Jesus” as a matter of law.

The court recognized the fundamental principles that abstract ideas and scenes a faire (sequences of events necessarily resulting from setting or situation) do not enjoy copyright protection, and that claims of infringement may be dismissed before discovery where alleged similarities concern only noncopyrightable elements of plaintiff’s work or no reasonable trier of fact could find the works substantially similar.

In a comparison of the works at issue, the court first considered their plots, which plaintiff contended were similar because both focused on “a Jesus character that engages in un-Jesus-like behavior which is used to propel their respective character and story [sic].” The court rejected plaintiff’s argument, stating “although these plot elements appear similar in their description, they prove to be quite dissimilar once examined in any detail.” For example, the court observed, “Thank You, Jesus” tells the story of a troublesome African-American son of a preacher who awakes from a dream believing himself to be the actual Jesus Christ and then proceeds to manipulate his father into letting him lead a sermon and lie to his friend “Speedy” to convince him to gather people to attend the sermon. While Jesus delivers the sermon, lightning strikes the church and burns it to the ground, but his father later learns that his insurance will pay to rebuild the church.

By contrast, the court stated, “Black Jesus” follows a flawed modern-day Jesus living in Compton who is on a mission to spread love and kindness through untraditional methods. The Jesus in this work, the court noted, implements God’s plan to grow a community garden to help Compton, but which also helps him and his friends grow marijuana. To carry forth that plan, Jesus and his friends overtake a vacant lot, negotiate with gang members and drug dealers, and steal necessary supplies. Thus, the court concluded, the characters’ “un-Jesus-like” behaviors manifest in markedly different ways.

The court also found no substantial similarity between the works’ main characters. It concluded that the Jesus in “Thank You, Jesus” is a “short, round, troublesome” 17-year-old son of a preacher who manipulates his father and friend, whereas the titular character in “Black Jesus” is a tall adult male who engages in unconventional acts but ultimately preaches traditional Christian messages. The court also rejected purported similarities between the character Speedy in “Thank You, Jesus” and the character Fish in “Black Jesus.” Although both engage in moneymaking schemes, they are different — Speedy’s involves collecting 10 percent of churchgoers’ offerings, whereas Fish’s involves a benefit concert to raise money for the community garden.

The court noted other dissimilarities between the works. It concluded that their settings differed because “Thank You, Jesus” occurs in the rural “Silltown” and “Black Jesus” takes place in modern-day inner-city Los Angeles. Although both works loosely embody religious themes, the court held that their “most predominant themes” differed, observing that “Thank You, Jesus” explores greed, faithlessness and father-son relationships, whereas “Black Jesus” focuses on forgiveness, discerning right from wrong, racism and police brutality, and bettering one’s community. Finally, the court concluded that the works’ total concept and feel “differ substantially,” noting that “Thank You, Jesus” is an 18-page story spanning the course of a single day, while “Black Jesus” is “a multi-season live-action comedy television series which takes place over the course of several months.”

Summary prepared by Jonathan Zavin and Frank D’Angelo