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Dean v. Cameron

United States District Court, S.D. New York

September 17, 2014

JAMES CAMERON et al., Defendants

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For William Roger Dean, Plaintiff: Steven Michael Hayes, Hanly Conroy Bierstein Sheridan Fisher & Hayes, LLP, New York, NY.

For James Cameron, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Lightstorm Entertainmen, Defendants: Jonathan Zavin, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jonathan Neil Strauss, Michael Steven Barnett, Loeb & Loeb LLP, New York, NY.

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JESSE M. FURMAN, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff William Roger Dean, a successful artist, brings this action against James Cameron, the renowned writer and director; Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment; and Lightstorm Entertainment (together, " Defendants" ). Plaintiff alleges that Defendants, through their work on the blockbuster 2009 feature film Avatar, infringed his copyright on fourteen " original artworks created and owned by Plaintiff." (Am. Compl. (Docket No. 12) ¶ 21). Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Defendants move to dismiss the Amended Complaint. They contend that Plaintiff cannot show that a substantial similarity exists between Avatar and the copyrightable elements of Plaintiff's artworks. (Docket No. 18). The Court agrees. Accordingly, for the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion is GRANTED, and the Amended Complaint is dismissed.


On a motion to dismiss, " a district court may consider the facts as asserted within the four corners of the complaint together with the documents attached to the complaint as exhibits, and any documents incorporated in the complaint by reference." Peter F. Gaito Architecture, LLC v. Simone Dev. Corp., 602 F.3d 57, 64 (2d Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). Where, as here, a plaintiff alleges copyright infringement, " the works themselves supersede and control contrary descriptions of them, including any contrary allegations, conclusions or descriptions of the works contained in the pleadings." Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Accordingly, the following facts

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are taken from the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff's fourteen paintings,[1] and the final film version of Avatar.[2] To the extent that the works at issue deviate from allegations or descriptions in the Amended Complaint, the Court relies on the works themselves and gives no weight to the Amended Complaint.

Plaintiff has worked as an artist and designer for more than forty-five years. (Am. Compl. ¶ 11). He has produced work in various media, including architecture, design, and painting. ( Id. ¶ 11). His works have been exhibited in art shows and galleries, including a collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. ( Id. ¶ 12; Pl.'s Mem. Law Opp'n Defs.' Mot. To Dismiss (Docket No. 28) (" Pl.'s Mem." ) 1). He has also created cover art and logo designs for recording artists, including -- perhaps most famously -- the rock band Yes. (Am. Compl. ¶ 12). Many of Plaintiff's works -- including the fourteen works that he alleges Defendants infringed -- are reproduced in three separate publications: Dragon's Dream, Views, and Magnetic Storm. ( Id. ¶ 15; see supra note 1). Plaintiff apparently created the fourteen works at issue between 1972 and 2007. (Am. Compl. ¶ 21; see supra note 1).

Defendant Cameron is a writer and film director whose works include well-known motion pictures such as The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), True Lies (1994), and Titanic (1997), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. In 2009, he and the other Defendants, all movie production companies, released Avatar, which became the highest-grossing film of all time by at least one measure. (Defs.' Mem. Law Supp. Mot. To Dismiss (Docket No. 19) (" Defs.' Mem." ) 1).[3] Avatar is set in the

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year 2154 A.D. in the fictional world of Pandora, light years away from Earth. ( Id. at 3). Pandora is inhabited by the Na'vi, " tall, blue-skinned humanoids with catlike features." ( Id.). The eponymous avatars are genetically engineered Na'vi bodies that " genetically-matched humans" control " via a mental link" to explore Pandora. ( Id.). The plot of the film involves a human-controlled corporation mining Pandora for " unobtanium" -- a valuable energy source that, as its name suggests, is difficult to acquire (in part because Pandora's atmosphere is poisonous to humans). ( Id.). In its quest for unobtanium, the corporation deploys avatars, one of whom is controlled by the protagonist Jake Sully, to explore Pandora while blending in with the Na'vi. ( Id. at 3-4).

The details of Jake's adventures are ultimately irrelevant to the present dispute, so there is no need to spoil the plot of the movie for someone who has not seen it. Instead, what is relevant is the film's mise-en-scène : Pandora's " fully envisioned ecosystem" of brightly colored and luminescent flora and fauna. ( Id. at 5). Defendants describe the biosphere as " simultaneously fantastic yet realistically[ ]rendered based on what appears in nature and grounded in scientific feasibility." ( Id.). Plaintiff, for his part, alleges that he sees avatars of his own work in Avatar 's biosphere. The Amended Complaint does not specify which parts of the film constitute " [t]he infringing portions of Avatar." (Am. Compl. ¶ 19). But from a review of the parties' memoranda of law and the artwork that Plaintiff alleges to have been infringed ( id. ¶ 21; see supra note 1), it appears that there are five aspects of Avatar 's ecosystem in dispute: (1) the " Hallelujah Mountains" (2) the " Stone Arches" ; (3) the " Hometree" ; (4) the " Tree of Voices" and the " Tree of Souls" ; and (5) some Pandoran wildlife, including " banshees," " thanators," " wolf-like predators," " six-legged horse-like creatures," and " woodsprites, small, bioluminescent jelly-fishlike creatures." (Defs.' Mem. 5-6).[4]


A motion pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) challenges the sufficiency of the allegations in the complaint. See ATSI Commc'ns, Inc. v. Shaar Fund, Ltd., 493 F.3d 87, 98 (2d Cir. 2007). To survive the motion, the complaint must " state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell A. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). A claim is facially plausible " when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). More specifically, the plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to show " more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. If the plaintiff has not

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" nudged [his or her] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, [the] complaint must be dismissed." Twomb ...

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