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Kaye v. Cartoon Network, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. New York

November 8, 2017

CARTOON NETWORK INC., et al., Defendants.



         On January 3, 2016, Plaintiff Michael Kaye filed this copyright infringement action against Cartoon Network, Inc.; Turner Broadcast Systems, Inc.; Cable News Network, Inc.; Time Warner, Inc.; Boom Entertainment, Inc.; Rebecca Sugar; Ian Jones-Quartey and Does 1-10. The Complaint alleges that Defendants violated the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq., by copying Plaintiff s Amphoman comic book series in their Steven Universe television series. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), Defendants move to dismiss the Complaint on the ground that Steven Universe is not substantially similar to Amphoman as a matter of law. As discussed below, Defendants' motion is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The facts below are drawn from the Complaint and documents and other evidence integral to the Complaint, including Plaintiffs comic book series, Amphoman, and a significant portion of the television series, Steven Universe. The facts are construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff as the non-moving party. See Doe v. Columbia Univ., 831 F.3d 46, 48 (2d Cir. 2016).

         A. Amphoman

         Plaintiff began developing the Amphoman character in 1989, and holds thirty-one related copyrights, the first of which he obtained in 1995. Between 2012 and 2013, Plaintiff self-published Amphoman as a nine-part comic book series. The comic books tell the story of Dr. Ulrius Joules, a marine biologist striving to cure his own rare form of terminal cancer. Dr. Joules also worries about the money he lost in the “mortgage housing crisis, ” his expensive car loan payments, lack of a pension and the American healthcare system. He uses profane and sexually explicit language, often in Yiddish, throughout the comic books.

         Dr. Joules lives in a condo in Fort Lauderdale. One day, he finds a green gem that fell from space. After Dr. Joules accidentally gets water on the gem, it magically fuses into Dr. Joules' forehead. Since then, whenever Dr. Joules gets wet, he transforms into Amphoman, an amphibious male superhero. Amphoman has a long powerful tongue and slippery skin. He can jump great distances, scale walls, swim at “stupendous” speed and is cured of cancer. Those superpowers and the freedom from cancer last only a few hours, after which Amphoman transforms back to Dr. Joules, until he gets wet again.

         Amphoman's gem contains the soul of a frog, which was placed there by an evil space king. Other gems that have landed in Fort Lauderdale also contain the souls of animals and each gem has its own trigger resulting in its own unique superpowers. For example, a gem with the soul of an electric eel endows its human host with electric energy depicted as lightning bolts. People who find these gems “trigger” them and transform into super-beings, usually villains, who cause mayhem across Fort Lauderdale.

         Amphoman saves the city by fighting these super-villains to return them to their human form, at which point he is able to dislodge and crush their gems. The super-villains include Black Bull, a male super-villain who wants to create an army of womanizers to “teach girls that men are in charge, ” and Shadow Witch, the only female character. Amphoman is sometimes accompanied by Bleash, another super-hero who has learned to manipulate his gem's trigger and control his powers.

         B. Steven Universe

         Defendants are the creators, distributors and copyright holders of the animated television series Steven Universe, which first aired on Cartoon Network in 2013. The show, with scores of episodes, is still being produced and aired. It tells the story of a boy named Steven who lives with three “Crystal Gem” female guardians, Garnet, Pearl and Amethyst, in a magical temple in “Beach City.” Crystal Gems are anthropomorphic space rocks. Good Crystal Gems, like Steven's guardians, protect Earth from invasions by evil Crystal Gems.

         Steven is half Crystal Gem (on his mother's side) and half human (on his father's side). Crystal Gems have gemstones embedded in their bodies, symbolizing that the characters are Crystal Gems. Steven's pink gemstone is in his stomach. Crystal Gems have unique weapons that emanate from their gems, and Steven can summon a magical shield from his gemstone. While the gemstones occasionally glow, they are not the source of a Crystal Gem's magical powers; a Crystal Gem's superpowers are innate. For example, Steven can heal and engulf himself in a protective bubble, and Garnet can see into the future. Over time, Steven learns to use his powers to help protect Earth from evil Crystal Gems.

         Despite having superpowers, Steven loves “Cookie Cat” ice-cream sandwiches and is passionate about arcade videogames. He hopes to fit in with Beach City's popular kids and scouts for potential playdates. During the course of their adventures, Steven and his Crystal Gem companions learn valuable life lessons; each Steven Universe episode comes with a message. For example, one episode teaches that everyone is different and things come at one's own time. Another episode shows that pretending to be someone you are not will cause more harm than good. The show is also replete with musical-theater-like numbers; the characters sing, Steven plays the ukulele and the piano, and his father plays the guitar.

         II. STANDARD

         On a motion to dismiss, a court accepts as true all well-pleaded factual allegations and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Trs. of Upstate N.Y. Eng'rs Pension Fund v. Ivy Asset Mgmt., 843 F.3d 561, 566 (2d Cir. 2016). To withstand dismissal, a pleading “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl Corp. v. Twombly,550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Where the disputed works are attached to or incorporated by reference in the complaint, a district court can “consider the similarity between those works in connection with a motion to dismiss, because the court has before it all that is necessary in order to make such an evaluation.” Peter F. Gaito Architecture, LLC v. Simone Dev. Corp., 602 F.3d 57, 64 (2d Cir. 2010). In a copyright infringement action, “the works themselves supersede and control ...

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