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Mallery v. NBC Universal

December 3, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Denise Cote, District Judge


Plaintiffs Clifton Mallery a/k/a Enjai Omaa Eele and Amnau Karam Eele ("plaintiffs") bring this action against the defendants NBC Universal, Inc., NBC Universal Television Studio, Tailwind Productions, Tim Kring, Dennis Hammer, Allan Arkush, Jeph Loeb, and Bryan Fuller ("defendants") alleging that the television series Heroes, which is (collectively) written, produced, and broadcast by the defendants, infringes the copyrights held by the plaintiffs in their 777-page handwritten novel The Twins: Journey of the Soul ("The Twins"), their short film based on Twins entitled The Letter, and their painting series Envious of America. On June 15, 2007, defendants moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). For the reasons stated below, the motion to dismiss is converted to a motion for summary judgment and is granted.


The following facts are taken from the complaint. Plaintiffs are "divination artists" known professionally as "The Twins." On April 22, 2005, plaintiffs screened their short film The Letter at Hunter College in New York City, exhibited paintings from their series Envious of America, and presented a lecture on their art. At this event, they also made available excerpts from their novel The Twins. Persons identifying themselves as writers from defendant Tim Kring's ("Kring") television show Crossing Jordan attended the event and "are believed to have taken copies" of those materials. Plaintiffs also screened The Letter at several other venues, and sent excerpts of The Twins along with a copy of The Letter to several entertainment executives, including to a corporate affiliate of defendants NBC Universal and NBC Universal Television Studio.

Defendant Kring conceived the idea for the television series Heroes around October or November of 2005. Heroes debuted on NBC in September 2006, and twenty-three episodes of the series had aired at the time the motion to dismiss was filed, constituting the first season of the series. Plaintiffs allege that Heroes is "so strikingly similar" to their works The Twins, The Letter, and Envious of America that Kring and the other defendants "must have had access to and copied" their work.


I. Governing Copyright Standards

"Copyright infringement is established when the owner of a valid copyright demonstrates unauthorized copying." Tufenkian Import/Export Ventures, Inc v. Einstein Moomjy, Inc., 338 F.3d 127, 131 (2d Cir. 2003) (quoting Castle Rock Entm't, Inc. v. Carol Publ'g Group, Inc., 150 F.3d 132, 137 (2d Cir. 1998)). In order to prevail on a claim for infringement, a copyright holder must show (1) "that his work was actually copied," and (2) "that the copying amounts to an improper or unlawful appropriation." Castle Rock Entm't, 150 F.3d at 137 (citation omitted).

Under the first prong, "[b]ecause direct evidence of [actual] copying is seldom available, a plaintiff may establish copying circumstantially by demonstrating that the person who composed the defendant's work had access to the copyrighted material, and that there are similarities between the two works that are probative of copying." Jorgensen v. Epic/Sony Records, 351 F.3d 46, 51 (2d Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). Similarities between the works are "probative" if, "under all the circumstances, [they] make independent creation unlikely." Laureyssens v. Idea Group, Inc., 964 F.2d 131, 140 (2d Cir. 1992) (citation omitted).

The second prong requires a plaintiff to demonstrate "unlawful appropriation." This reflects a recognition that even where "actual copying" may have occurred, not all such copying is actionable under the copyright laws. To establish "unlawful appropriation," a plaintiff must demonstrate "substantial similarity" between the original and allegedly infringing works. Tufenkian Import/Export Ventures, 338 F.3d at 131 (citation omitted). The works are "substantially similar" if the similarities are "more than de minimis," and if "it was protected expression in the earlier work that was copied." Id. (citation omitted). Where the copying is not literal or does not plagiarize the protected work, infringement may nonetheless occur. Id. at 132-33. To determine whether a defendant has infringed a plaintiff's copyright in these circumstances, a court must "analyze the . . . works closely to figure out in what respects, if any, they are similar, and then determine whether these similarities are due to protected aesthetic expressions original to the allegedly infringed work, or whether the similarity is to something in the original that is free for the taking." Id. at 134-35.

For the purposes of this motion, defendants do not contest that the plaintiffs hold registered copyrights in The Twins, The Letter, or Envious of America,*fn1 or deny that they had access to these works. Rather, defendants argue that there is simply no "substantial similarity" between these works and the television show Heroes, and that plaintiffs' copyright infringement claim therefore fails as a matter of law. Plaintiffs counter by pointing out both general and specific similarities between the works in question.

In light of the arguments presented, this motion is properly treated as a motion for summary judgment. Whether certain works are substantially similar to one another is a question of fact to be resolved by a jury. Cf. Yurman Design, Inc. v. PAJ, Inc., 262 F.3d 101, 111 (2d Cir. 2001) (citing Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc., 523 U.S. 340, 355 (1998)). "However, a district court may determine noninfringement as a matter of law on a motion for summary judgment either when the similarity concerns only noncopyrightable elements of plaintiff work, or when no reasonable trier of fact could find the works substantially similar." Walker v. Time Life Films, Inc., 784 F.2d 44, 48 (2d Cir. 1986); see also Williams v. Crichton, 84 F.3d 581, 587 (2d Cir. 1996). Although the defendants filed their motion pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), the arguments raised in the defendants' motion papers and in the plaintiffs' opposition have focused almost exclusively on these questions -- i.e., whether the alleged similarities relate to noncopyrightable elements and whether any reasonable observer could consider the works substantially similar -- and thus it is appropriate to convert this motion to one for summary judgment in order to address the merits of the arguments raised by the parties.*fn2 Before a discussion of the merits can proceed, however, it is first necessary briefly to review the works in question.

II. Summary of Works ...

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