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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Day v. Winfrey

District court dismisses copyright claims against Oprah Winfrey and related entities involved in production of TV show Greenleaf, finding no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Greenleaf is substantially similar to plaintiff’s memoir or whether defendants had access to plaintiff’s work.

Plaintiff Freda J. Day sued Oprah Winfrey, Harpo Productions, Lionsgate Entertainment and the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), entities involved with the production of the television show Greenleaf that aired on OWN from 2016 to 2020, alleging copyright infringement of her 2005 memoir From the Greenleaf to Greener Pastures: A Memoir. Plaintiff alleged she wrote the memoir in 1999, obtained copyright protection in 2003 and sent a copy to Oprah Winfrey in 2009. On defendants’ motion, the court granted summary judgment, finding that plaintiff failed to raise any genuine issue of disputed fact for two central elements of copyright infringement: 1) access to the book by any of the defendants and 2) substantial similarity between the two works.

As to access, plaintiff alleged that she sent the book to Winfrey by certified mail in 2009, but she was unable to produce any evidence, such as a certified mail receipt, in support of her assertion. The court also noted that it was undisputed that the address to which plaintiff claimed to have sent the book was not occupied by OWN until 2015, and that entities associated with Winfrey had policies of returning unsolicited submissions and never forwarding them to Winfrey or anyone else. Lastly, none of OWN’s or Harpo’s submission logs contained any reference to plaintiff or the book. The court therefore concluded that no reasonable jury could find for plaintiff on access.

The court next considered whether the two works were substantially similar, applying the two-pronged analysis consisting of an objective “extrinsic test” and a subjective “intrinsic test.” The extrinsic test, which compares the specific objective elements of the works at issue, can be satisfied if an analysis shows that the copyrighted work and the accused work contain similar elements such as plot, theme, characters and sequence of events, among others. 

After conducting this analysis, the court concluded that none of the protectable elements of the book bore any similarity to Greenleaf. Among other things, while plaintiff’s book was presented in an autobiographical and chronological fashion, Greenleaf featured complex story lines with several subplots. Whereas the memoir recounts the true story of plaintiff’s struggles with poverty, single parenthood, alcoholism and career fulfillment, Greenleaf focuses on one character’s quest to stop a child molester and the drama surrounding an affluent African American church. The court rejected plaintiff’s attempts to demonstrate substantial similarity through various trivial details, noting that “a claim for copyright infringement cannot be based on ‘random similarities scattered throughout the works.’”

The court then turned to the second prong of the substantial similarity analysis: the intrinsic test, in which the main inquiry turns on whether the works share a “total concept and feel” when viewed from the perspective of the ordinary observer. The court noted that the book was an autobiography chronicling Day’s life, from being raised as one of 10 kids in poverty to her marriage to an unemployed alcoholic who abuses her and with whom she raises three kids while being serially evicted from more than a dozen residences, and ends with her move to North Carolina in 1999, where she hopes to begin a better life. In contrast, Greenleaf is a fictional piece about a present-day African American church and its wealthy bishop and his family, with the first season focused on the quest of its main character (the bishop’s daughter) to stop a serial child molester (her uncle). Accordingly, the court held that the book and Greenleaf did not share even superficial similarities, let alone a common total concept and feel.

Because Day failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether defendants had copied her book, the court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants and dismissed the claims with prejudice.

Summary prepared by Linna Chen and Marwa Abdelaziz