In copyright infringement suit over television series “Empire,” district court dismisses claims, finding that plaintiff failed to allege that defendants had access, or that “Empire” is substantially similar, to her book.
Plaintiff Chloris Hall brought copyright infringement claims against self-publishing company Author Solutions LLC d/b/a AuthorHouse and Xlibris (ASL) as well as Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. (TCF), Lee Daniels and Denisy Network for copyright infringement, alleging that defendants turned her book “Girl, You Ain’t Gonna Make It, So They Said” into the smash television series “Empire” without her authorization. Specifically, Hall alleged that she pitched the book to a group of 10 producers at a self-publishing book-to-screen pitchfest in Las Vegas that ASL also attended and that ASL sent her book to four producers in Hollywood. She also alleged that she pitched an electronic copy of her book to Daniels by sending Daniels a link to Hall’s website, where she had posted a copy of the book. Defendants filed motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim, which the district court granted.
The court dismissed Hall’s copyright infringement claim against ASL because Hall failed to allege any unauthorized copying. Rather, Hall alleged only that ASL might have forwarded her book to Daniels and TCF, which then used her book to create “Empire,” and that ASL therefore owed her royalty payments. This was insufficient, as Hall failed to allege any facts showing that these defendants actually copied her work.
The court dismissed Hall’s infringement claim against TCF because Hall failed to allege access and substantial similarity. With respect to access, the court found that Hall’s allegations that either she or ASL provided copies of her book to unspecified Hollywood producers failed to support a reasonable inference that TCF had the opportunity to review or copy her book. Moreover, the court found that Hall’s allegation that she sent a copy of the book to Daniels, who works with TCF, was also insufficient to establish access because Hall’s complaint did not specify the nature of the relationship between TCF and Daniels.
With respect to substantial similarity, the court considered “whether the accused work is so similar to the plaintiff’s work that an ordinary reasonable person would conclude that the defendant unlawfully appropriated the plaintiff’s protectible expression by taking material of substance and value.” Reviewing the works, the court concluded that the setting and tone for the two works “could not be more different.” “Empire” depicts the exploits of a wealthy family in Manhattan, while Hall’s book revolves around the life of a girl from Chicago who grows up in poverty. Hall argued that TCF merely altered the financial circumstances of the characters but retained “the same or similar expressions, nicknames, reactions, initials, and names as described in her book.” Hall also pointed to other similarities between the two works, including, for example, that both works address illness, drug and alcohol misuse, family strife and separation, extramarital relationships, gun violence, and physical and emotional abuse. The court, however, found that the alleged similarities Hall relied on are not protectable expressions under copyright law, as the similarities between the works touch on subjects that are so rudimentary, commonplace, standard or unavoidable that they do not serve to distinguish one work within a class of works from another. As the court noted, “countless novels, biographies, autobiographies, songs, and other works of art that describe tumultuous upbringings or familial interactions touch on these subjects, and the Copyright Act does not protect incidents, characters or settings which are as a practical matter indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic.” Thus, “[t]he combination of the few similar elements Hall relies upon simply does not provide the basis for protected original expression given the vastly different stories recounted in the two works at issue.” And Hall failed to allege substantial similarity.
Finally, the court also dismissed, without prejudice, the claims of infringement against Lee Daniels and Denisy Network, as they had not been served and more than 90 days had passed since the filing of the complaint.
Summary prepared by Linna Chen and Ava Badiee