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Jones v. Twentieth Century Studios, Inc.

District court grants defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claims for copyright infringement regarding defendants’ movie Ad Astra, finding no evidence of either access or substantial similarity.

Plaintiff Phillip Madison Jones alleged that he wrote a screenplay titled Cosmic Force, which tells the story of a futuristic athlete’s secret mission to rescue his father from outer space, where he had been sent to find an alien device called the Dark Light. In November 2015, plaintiff emailed a copy of the screenplay to Creative Artists Agency LLC (CAA) hoping to have the script made into a movie; CAA was not interested. The movie Ad Astra, written by two writers represented by CAA and telling the story of an astronaut sent into space to find his father, was released in 2019.

Plaintiff brought suit against a number of parties related to the movie, including the film’s writers, James Gray and Ethan Gross; their agency, CAA; and the film’s distributors, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., 20th Century Studios Inc. and The Walt Disney Co. Plaintiff filed suit for direct, contributory and vicarious copyright infringement, as well as breach of implied contract, alleging that the movie is almost identical to his screenplay.

Defendants moved for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claims. As an initial matter, plaintiff had failed to respond to CAA’s Requests for Admission. The court held that it was appropriate to deem all of CAA’s Requests for Admission to be admitted, including requests such as “Admit that YOUR Cosmic Force screenplay is not substantially similar to any Ad Astra screenplay, film, or trailer.” On that basis alone, the court found summary judgment in favor of CAA to be appropriate. Even absent these admissions, however, the court concluded that summary judgment should be granted in favor of defendants.

First, the court found the undisputed evidence showed that defendants lacked access to plaintiff’s script. At least one draft and outline of Ad Astra had been completed before plaintiff created Cosmic Force. Further, the writers had submitted one script for Ad Astra to a CAA agent in November 2013 and another in May 2015, while plaintiff first submitted a copy of Cosmic Force to a CAA agent in November 2015 and then again in September 2016. The individuals who received the Cosmic Force script were not the same agents involved with Ad Astra; had no involvement with Ad Astra; and did not share it with anyone else at CAA or anyone involved in the production of Ad Astra.

Second, the court held that there was no substantial similarity between the works that would be indicative of copying. While both stories “involve protagonists journeying to outer space to search for lost missions helmed by their respective fathers,” the works did not include any other similarities: Cosmic Force is an action/thriller movie featuring a military athlete who is recruited by a group of powerful trillionaires to find an alien device and ends up blowing up the device and his father. Ad Astra is a melancholy drama following an astronaut who goes in search of his lost father, who ends up launching himself into space rather than returning to Earth with his son, and ends with the protagonist reconnecting with his estranged wife. The court held that “substantial similarities do not exist between the two scripts’ themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters, or sequence of events.” Further, “the general plotline of a protagonist searching for a lost mission that was helmed by their father is not protectable.”

The court also granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment with respect to plaintiff’s claims for contributory infringement, as there was no dispute of material fact as to defendants’ knowledge of another’s infringement and either material contribution to or inducement of that infringement. Additionally, the court held that summary judgment was proper in favor of defendant CAA with respect to plaintiff’s claims for vicarious infringement, which requires that a plaintiff show that the defendant profited from direct infringement while declining to exercise the right to stop or limit it. The court held that even if there were evidence of direct infringement—which the court had already held there was not—CAA acted only as a talent agency and not as a sales agent with respect to Ad Astra and would not have had any right or ability to supervise the allegedly infringing activity.

Last, plaintiff brought a claim for breach of implied contract under the theory that he conditioned his submission of Cosmic Force to CAA on an obligation to pay; CAA knew of the condition and voluntarily accepted the submission; and defendants found the ideas in Cosmic Force valuable and actually used them. But the court held that plaintiff’s claim failed at least as to the third element, because defendants did not use the ideas in Cosmic Force, given that plaintiff had failed to prove access or substantial similarity.

The court granted defendants’ motions for summary judgment and denied plaintiff’s motions seeking further discovery he argued might reveal evidence that the May 2015 script, which predated his own, was actually a fraudulent document, as the court found no basis for that suspicion.

Summary prepared by David Grossman and Erin Shields.