In copyright infringement action brought by screenwriter alleging that film What Men Want infringed his screenplay, district court grants motion to dismiss, finding that plaintiff's allegations of access were insufficient and that parties’ works are not substantially similar.
Paramount Pictures Corp. released What Men Want (WMW) on the Black Entertainment Television (BET) channel in 2019. The movie’s plot is premised on a woman who gains the ability to hear men’s thoughts and uses her mind-reading powers to further her career. Approximately four years before WMW was released, plaintiff Joe Gregory Carlini co-authored a screenplay titled What the F Is He Thinking? (WTF), which also involves a woman who gains access to men’s thoughts. Plaintiff registered his script with the U.S. Copyright Office in 2015 and shopped it to over 70 individuals or companies in the Los Angeles film industry, though ultimately no one was interested in picking it up for production.
Following the release of WMW, plaintiff sued Paramount and BET for copyright infringement, alleging that WMW was strikingly similar to WTF in plot, theme, dialogue, pace and characters, among other artistic elements. Defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, asserting that WMW was actually a remake of the 2000 Paramount film What Women Want, which involved a man who gains the ability to hear women’s thoughts. The court agreed that plaintiff had not pled a viable claim of infringement and dismissed the action.
The court first found that plaintiff failed to plead direct evidence of copying or even circumstantial evidence of copying through allegations that defendants had access to his work. First, plaintiff failed to plead sufficient evidence of a direct link between his work and that of defendants. Although plaintiff pointed to four individuals he believed proved access, several had only attenuated connections to defendants, and none played any part in the development or production of WMW. Plaintiff also failed to plead that his screenplay was “widely disseminated” in order to allege access. While plaintiff claimed he had pitched his screenplay to 70 individuals and entities in the Los Angeles area, the court found that this limited distribution in the “center of the film industry” does not create a reasonable possibility that defendants had read his work.
The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that even if access cannot be proven, he could still prevail by showing that the works are “strikingly similar.” In reaching that conclusion, the court cited the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Three Boys Music Corp. v. Bolton, which explained that the Court of Appeals had never held that “a weak showing of access requires a stronger showing of substantial similarity.”
Although the failure to allege access was dispositive, the court went on to hold that even if plaintiff had sufficiently alleged access, he failed to plead facts demonstrating that the works are substantially similar under the Ninth Circuit’s “extrinsic” test. The court noted that while the extrinsic test is “more commonly” applied on a motion for summary judgment, the Ninth Circuit has “repeatedly” affirmed dismissals based on a comparison of the literary works at the pleading stage.
The court reasoned that while WMW and WTF are both centered on the same major plot device – a female lead who gains the power to hear men’s thoughts – such a general plot idea is not protectable. The other allegedly similar plot points – such as a woman developing a romantic relationship with a bartender and having a gay best friend – were all scenes a faire of a comedy based on a woman gaining the power to hear men’s thoughts. The court also pointed to several differences in the plots of the two works, including how the women gained their telepathic powers and how those powers were used. For example, the main character in WMW used her powers primarily to advance her career, while the lead in WTF used her powers primarily to catch her cheating fiancé.
The court also explained that the sequence of events of the two works was not substantially similar, as plaintiff was only able to identify “general elements that involve a high-level comparison of movie features that are an obvious outgrowth of a romantic comedy about a woman who gains and then loses the ability to hear men’s thoughts.” Nor were the characters sufficiently similar, according to the court, as the protagonist in WTF was a young woman in her mid-20s who is depicted as a nice Midwestern girl, while the main character in WMW is a middle-aged, aggressive, self-absorbed, career-focused woman. The court also chronicled the lack of protectable similarities of the mood and pacing, settings, themes, and dialogue of the two works.
The court dismissed plaintiff’s copyright claims without leave to amend. It declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims under California’s Unfair Competition Law and for breach of implied contract, dismissing those claims without prejudice.