USDC S.D. New York, September 30, 2008
Plaintiffs developed a television treatment in 2002 titled American Runway and registered it with the U.S. Copyright Office in June, 2003. During this period, plaintiffs discussed the treatment with various talent agencies, including non-parties TWI and 7th on Sixth, subsidiaries of non-party agency IMG, which represents supermodel Heidi Klum. Although TWI employees initially expressed interest in American Runway, the program was not developed into a television show.
In December, 2004, Project Runway, a fashion-themed reality television show hosted by Klum, premiered on Bravo. Plaintiffs filed suit for copyright infringement against defendant producers of Project Runway. The court granted summary judgment for defendants after concluding that plaintiffs failed to show defendants had access to their treatment; American Runway and Project Runway are not substantially similar; and defendants presented undisputed evidence of independent creation of Project Runway.
First, the court held that plaintiff did not present significant, affirmative and probative evidence to support a claim of access. Plaintiffs’ belief that TMI and 7th on Sixth employees who received the American Runway treatment passed it along to IMG employees, who then passed it along to defendants, while hypothetically possible, was insufficient to find access.
Second, the court held that no reasonable juror could conclude that American Runway and Project Runway are substantially similar. The court emphasized that American Runway focused on contestants developing a moderately priced clothing line throughout the competition and utilized a populist judging system involving the American public to weed out contestants. By contrast, Project Runway centered on high-class fashion elimination challenges, which were not interconnected week-to-week, and left judging solely to a panel of fashion experts. The court further noted that similarities between the works, such as a design workroom with sewing machines, professional models, and a New York setting, were unprotected scenes a faire, as they necessarily flowed from the uncopyrightable concept of a fashion competition reality show.
Regarding independent creation, the court noted that defendants presented substantial undisputed evidence that defendants began brainstorming and outlining Project Runway as early as September, 2002. The court held that this showing of independent creation, coupled with plaintiffs’ inability to establish access or substantial similarity, warranted a finding of summary judgment in defendants’ favor. Additionally, the court dismissed plaintiffs’ state actions for misappropriation, unfair competition and unjust enrichment as preempted by the Copyright Act.