In Depth

District court dismisses author’s claims that film “The Maze Runner” and novel of same name infringed on copyright in his book The Maze, holding that similarities between works, including giant maze and robotic creatures, are unprotectable scenes a faire.

Tize Clark, author of horror novel The Maze, sued James Dashner and Random House LLC, the author and publisher of The Maze Runner novel, and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., distributor of “The Maze Runner” film, for copyright infringement and unfair trade practices and unfair competition under state and federal law. The district court dismissed the claims in two orders — addressing motions to dismiss brought by Twentieth Century Fox and, separately, by Dashner and Random House.

Clark, who registered the copyright in The Maze in 2002, alleged that the 2009 novel and the 2014 film “The Maze Runner” copied his work, including the idea of a giant maze with moving walls and robotic creatures. Defendants moved to dismiss Clark’s causes of action for failure to state a claim, arguing that a review of the works at issue showed an insufficient similarity of protectable elements. Rejecting Clark’s argument to the contrary, the district court held that it could review and compare the copyrighted works on a motion to dismiss.

Comparing the works at issue, the district court held that Clark’s allegations that the defendants copied his concept of a giant maze with moving walls and robotic creatures was insufficient to state a claim for copyright infringement, as these elements are unprotectable ideas and scenes a faire. The court noted and relied upon numerous examples of creative works — from Greek mythology to the Harry Potter stories — that involve mazes that challenge the protagonist’s perseverance. Similarly, the district court held that the idea of biomechanical creatures was common in the science fiction, dystopian and horror genres. Explaining that Clark’s complaint lacked any factual allegations of defendants’ copying beyond these unprotectable elements, the district court dismissed Clark’s copyright infringement claims with prejudice.

The district court further held that no reasonable person could conclude that the works are substantially similar beyond the level of generalized or otherwise unprotectable ideas, as the works are different in plot, sequence of events, themes, mood, setting and pace. Moreover, the district court rejected Clark’s contention that the works contain similar characters, as those comparisons were based on basic character traits and “only well-developed characters may enjoy copyright protection.”

Clark’s complaint also asserted claims of unfair trade practices and unfair competition under both state and federal law, based on defendants’ copying of his works without credit or payment of royalties. Explaining that the rights to reproduce and distribute a copyrighted work are exclusive rights under the Copyright Act, the district court held Clark’s state law claims to be pre-empted. For similar reasons, the court held that Clark’s federal unfair competition claim under the Lanham Act, based on nonattribution of credit, was a “reverse passing off” foreclosed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dastar v. Twentieth Century Fox. Explaining that the alleged misconduct “falls within the exclusive purview of the federal copyright law,” the district court thus dismissed Clark’s federal claim for unfair competition with prejudice.