South-Western Legal Studies in Business

Copying General Theme of Copyrighted Work Is Not Infringement
Description Appeals court affirmed that there was no infringement when one film company developed a story similar to that contained in a script the company had a chance to review but did not use. Infringement requires copying of specific parts of material, not general themes and story lines.
Topic Intellectual Property
Key Words Copyright, Infringement, Similarity
C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts While O'Donnell was writing a screenplay, "The Funk Parlor," about a family-run funeral parlor, her script was shown to the head of programming at HBO. Soon after, HBO hired a writer to develop "Six Feet Under," a similar story. Both stories concern a family-run funeral parlor taken over by children of the deceased founder; assorted romances and business problems occur. O'Donnell sued HBO for copyright infringement. The district court held for defendants; O'Donnell appealed.
Decision

Affirmed. A determination of substantial similarity requires detailed examination of the allegedly infringed and infringing works. Protectable expressions include the specific details of an author's rendering of ideas, but general scenes and plots-lines are not protectable under copyright law. Infringement requires copying of concrete elements that make up the total sequence of events and the relationships among the major characters. An impression that the stories are similar is not sufficient to find infringement.

Citation Funky Films, Inc. v. Time Warner Entertainment Co., 462 F.3d 1072 (9th Cir., 2006)

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