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MORRIS v. CASTLE ROCK ENTERTAINMENT

February 14, 2003

KYLE MORRIS AND WILLIAM RICHERT, PLAINTIFFS,
V.
CASTLE ROCK ENTERTAINMENT, INC., ALAN HORN, ROB REINER, AARON SORKIN, SALLY BURMEISTER, WRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA, WEST, INC., RICHARD HELLER AND WARNER TELEVISION, INC., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: VICTOR Marrero, District Judge.

  DECISION AND AMENDED ORDER

Plaintiffs Kyle Morris ("Morris") and William Richert "Richert," and together with Morris, "Plaintiffs") filed a complaint (the "Complaint") against Defendants Castle Rock Entertainment, Inc. ("Castle Rock"), Alan Horn, Rob Reiner ("Reiner"), Aaron Sorkin ("Sorkin"), Sally Burmeister, Writers Guild of America, West, Inc. ("WGA"), Richard Heller and Warner Television, Inc. ("WTI") (collectively, the "Defendants") alleging that Defendants had (i) breached certain contracts with the Plaintiffs, (ii) infringed certain copyrighted materials of Plaintiffs, (iii) violated the Lanham Act, (iv) committed fraud and (v) engaged in a conspiracy against the Plaintiffs.*fn1 Defendants in turn filed a motion pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to dismiss the Complaint in its entirety. By Order dated January 31, 2003, the Court granted Defendants' motion and indicated that its findings, reasoning and conclusions would be set forth in a separate decision to be made available to the parties. Accordingly, for the reasons discussed below, Defendants' motion is GRANTED.

I. FACTS

In October of 1980, Plaintiffs wrote an original treatment for a film they titled "The President Elopes" (the "Film"), which involved a widowed President raising his young daughter and attempting to begin a new romance. After completing the treatment, Morris entered into a contract with Richert International Corporation, Inc. ("RIC"), which provided for an equal split of all revenues arising from the sale of any rights of the Film. Shortly thereafter, RIC signed a contract (the "Contract") with Walt Disney Productions ("WD") in which Plaintiffs agreed to work on revisions of the treatment and, at WD's option, a screenplay of the Film. RIC also assigned all of its intellectual property rights for the Film to WD.

Over the next four years, the Contract was sold various times to different movie studios, while Richert continued writing new drafts of the screenplay. In 1985, Universal Pictures ("Universal") purchased the Contract and obtained involvement in the project by Wildwood Films ("Wildwood"), a production company affiliated with the actor and director Robert Redford ("Redford"). After several years of development, during which time other screenwriters attempted to draft new versions of the Film, Universal and Wildwood asked Richert to write a new draft of the Film. Subsequently, in 1992, Reiner, as a representative of Castle Rock, the production company with which he was affiliated, approached Redford and agreed to jointly produce the Film with Wildwood.

Later on in 1992, Castle Rock hired Sorkin to write a new screenplay with a similar concept as the one on which the Film was based. In 1994, Wildwood sold the Contract to Castle Rock,*fn2 which by this time was producing a film called "The American President" that had been written by Sorkin. In May of 1995, Castle Rock instituted proceedings with the WGA to ask that Sorkin receive sole writer's credit for "The American President." Morris protested this request, and consequently the WGA established an arbitration panel (the "Panel") to determine whether Sorkin should receive sole credit for the screenplay to "The American President." The Panel began the arbitration process on September 7, 1995 and, on September 29, 1995, concluded that Sorkin deserved sole credit. "The American President" was subsequently released on November 17, 1995, and Sorkin later went on to create and produce a television show about the daily workings of the White House titled "The West Wing.

II. DISCUSSION

A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Dismissal of a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) is proper only where "it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim that would entitle him to relief." Harris v. City of New York, 186 F.3d 243, 247 (2d Cir. 1999). On a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), a court accepts all well-pleaded factual assertions in the complaint as true and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. See Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984) ; see also McGinty v. State of New York, 193 F.3d 64, 68 (2d Cir. 1999). The court may not consider matters outside the pleadings, see Tewksbury v. Ottaway Newspapers, 192 F.3d 322, 325 n. 1 (2d Cir. 1999), but may review "any written instrument attached to [the Complaint] as an exhibit . . . ." Rothman v. Gregor, 220 F.3d 81, 88 (2d Cir. 2000) (citation omitted)

B. PLAINTIFFS' COPYRIGHT CLAIMS

Plaintiffs allege that the production of both "The American President" and "The West Wing" infringed on Plaintiffs' copyrighted material, namely "The President Elopes." In order to prevail on a claim of violation of copyright, a copyright plaintiff must first establish (1) ownership of a valid copyright and (2) copying of constituent original elements of plaintiff's work. See Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., Inc., 499 U.S. 340, 360 (1991)

Plaintiffs fail to establish the first element of this test. Indeed, the Contract — attached to the Amended Complaint as an exhibit — clearly states that all work produced by the Plaintiffs for RIC shall be done in an employer-for-hire relationship, with all copyrights assigned by Plaintiffs first to RIC and then from RIC to WD. (Amended Compl., Exh. A, ¶ 11.) The language in this assignment provision is unambiguous. As part of the agreement, WD obtained

(i) [t]he copyright . . . and all now or hereafter existing rights of every kind or character whatsoever pertaining to said work, and the title thereof, whether or not such rights are now known, recognized or contemplated; and (ii) [t]he complete, unrestricted, unconditional and unencumbered title in and to said work, and all results and ...

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