South-Western Legal Studies in Business

General Movie Theme Not Sufficient To Establish Copyright Infringement
Description Appeals court held that absent proof that a movie producer had read a script somewhat similar to a later script used in making a movie, and given major differences in the structure of the movie, there was not adequate evidence to support a suit for copyright infringement.
Topic Intellectual Property
Key Words Copyright; Infringement; Screenplay; Similarity
C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts In 1994, Kornfield began work on a screenplay that evolved into, "Jingle All the Way" (JATW), a movie made by Twentieth Century Fox Film (Fox) in 1996. In 1989, Webster wrote a screenplay, "Could This Be Christmas" (CTBC). Both screenplays were registered with the Copyright Office. Webster and his agent, Murray Hill, tried to sell the screenplay to movie producers, including Fox, from 1989 to 1993. After JATW appeared in 1996, and was financially successful, Hill sued Fox for infringement, contending that Fox producers had seen the CTBC script and copied the idea into JATW. The jury held for Hill, awarding $19 million in damages. The trial court reduced the award to $1.5 million. Both parties appealed.

Reversed. When there is no direct evidence of copying, the plaintiff must show that defendant has access to the allegedly infringed upon work and that there were substantial similarities between the two works. Access to the copyright work may not be inferred by speculation; there must be evidence that the defendant had most likely seen the work. The fact that CTBC was offered to Fox, and multiple other film companies, does not mean that it was read at Fox by anyone related to JATW. Further, the works must be so strikingly similar as to preclude the possibility of independent creation. Copyrighting does not protect ideas, only the expression of ideas. The fact that the general story line is similar is not sufficient evidence to show infringement. Here, one script was about a rich father searching for a present for his son; the other script was about a poor mother searching for a similar present for her son. There are too many differences, absent evidence that the script had been accessed by Fox writers, for there to be infringement.

Citation Murray Hill Publications v. Twentieth Century Fox Film, 361 F.3d 312 (6th Cir., 2004)

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