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Davis v. American Broadcasting Company

District court dismisses copyright infringement claim brought by writer and New York City public school teacher, finding her script of mockumentary-style series chronicling exploits of public school teachers was not substantially similar to popular comedic television series Abbott Elementary, set in public elementary school in Philadelphia.

Christine Davis, a writer and performer as well as a licensed New York City public school teacher, wrote the treatment for a proposed television series titled This School Year. Davis created the treatment in 2018 based on her experiences and those of her family members who are also teachers. After registering her treatment with the U.S. Copyright Office, Davis engaged in discussions with Shavon Sullivan Wright and Cherisse Parks, co-founders of the production company Blue Park Productions LLC (BPP), about developing the show. Wright and Parks held themselves out to be experienced producers with connections to ABC and Hulu. They originally expressed interest in This School Year, had Davis sign an NDA and provided notes on her script for the pilot episode, promising further meetings once Davis incorporated their notes, which they urged her to do quickly given the “upcoming [television] pitch season.” After Davis sent them a revised script, however, Wright, Parks and BPP stopped responding to her. 

Davis brought a copyright infringement claim against Wright, Parks and BPP, as well as Quinta Brunson, the writer, executive producer and star of the hit Hulu television series Abbott Elementary, which debuted in 2021; Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker, the series’ executive producers; Delicious Non-Sequitur Productions LLC, the production company; and American Broadcasting Co. (ABC), which produces, markets and broadcasts the show. Davis alleged that Wright, Parks and BPP provided her script and storybook to their connections at ABC and Hulu and presented her idea without her permission. All defendants moved to dismiss on the basis that the two works are not substantially similar. Certain defendants also moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.

The district court denied the motions to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction on the basis that the moving defendants’ interactions with plaintiff, who resided in New York, were sufficient to establish specific jurisdiction. The court granted the motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim, however, finding that (1) the similarities plaintiff identified in both works had their roots in common and unprotectable elements or were not actually similarities at all, and (2) the total concept and overall feel of both works were distinct.

This School Year is a mockumentary-style workplace comedy set in a New York City public school. The pilot episode follows Camille Davis, the protagonist and a second-year teacher, as she prepares for the new school year. The show opens with Davis banging her head against a book, expressing anxiety about her tenure prospects and speaking to her colleagues about her pessimistic outlook for the upcoming school year. During the course of the school day, Davis becomes frustrated that the new principal assigns her a new teaching subject and asks Davis to lead the school’s cultural committee based on her experience coaching the school’s step team. The episode ends with Davis screaming and throwing a book at a blackboard when she learns that someone has taken her classroom desk.

Abbott Elementary is also a mockumentary-style workplace comedy set in a Philadelphia elementary school. The pilot begins with the protagonist, second-grade teacher Janine Teagues, giving an uplifting introductory monologue, which is followed by a student urinating on her classroom rug even while Teagues sarcastically claims to finally feel “on top of things.” The pilot episode chronicles Teagues’ efforts to convince the principal, Ava Coleman, to secure a replacement rug. After Teagues writes an email to the school’s superintendent criticizing Coleman as incompetent, she realizes she accidentally sent the email to Coleman. A confrontation between Teagues and Coleman then takes place, during which Teagues reveals that her persistence in obtaining the rug is because one of her students, who comes from a difficult home situation, naps on the rug each day. Teagues’ colleagues then steal rugs intended for VIP suites from the construction site of a new football stadium. The pilot episode ends with the teachers enjoying the new rugs and Teagues and Coleman reconciling.

The district court concluded that “an idealistic teacher’s struggle to inspire her students in the face of bureaucratic challenges from a school’s administration is a generalized idea that is not copyrightable.” The court ruled that the differences in plot and structure outweighed any similarities. This School Year “opens on a darker note,” whereas the struggles in Abbott Elementary are introduced “in a markedly more happy-go-lucky way.” Although both protagonists lose a classroom furnishing, those subplots are markedly different. Davis losing her desk is the final punctuation demonstrating the school’s lack of resources. Teagues’ losing the rug serves as a conceit that runs throughout the pilot episode and “demonstrates the protagonist’s drive to make a change for her students regardless of how steep the battle.”

The district court concluded that the characters, and particularly the protagonists, are dissimilar and distinct. While both protagonists are young, female and African American, those generalized traits are unprotectable. Whereas Davis’ pessimistic attitude is driven by her desire to obtain tenure, Teagues’ positive outlook is driven by her desire to positively influence her students’ lives.

Finally, the court held that while “a work may be copyrightable even though it is entirely a compilation of unprotectable elements,” the total concept and feel of the two works were markedly different and insufficient to support plaintiff’s allegation of substantial similarity. Whereas This School Year “blends comedy with a harder-edged look at the uncertainties and challenges teachers face,” Abbott Elementary “employs a comparatively lighter tone.” As a result, any “discerning ordinary observer” would appreciate that the two works’ protectable elements are selected and arranged in a distinct manner.

Summary prepared by Tal Dickstein and Keane Barger