USDC S.D. New York, February 5, 2009
Court grants defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s idea misappropriation claim regarding an idea for marketing M&M’s candies because plaintiff’s idea was not novel and was not shared in confidence
Plaintiff Bonnie Vent is a freelance entertainment broker, representing television actors, including those who starred in the 1960s television show The Addams Family. In August, 2006, she contacted Claire O’Donnell, a senior marketing buyer for Mars, and pitched an idea for a cross-promotion between Addams Family characters and M&M’s candies. Shortly after this telephone conversation, O’Donell informed plaintiff that Mars had declined to use her idea for a cross-promotion involving M&M’s and Addams Family characters. About eight months later, plaintiff claimed that Mars produced several advertisements featuring M&M’s candies transmogrified to resemble the cast of The Addams Family television show. Plaintiff filed suit for misappropriation of an idea and breach of an implied-in-fact contract (subsequently withdrawing the implied-in-fact contract claim).
After oral arguments, the parties filed a joint stipulation allowing the court to consider Mars’s M&M’s-Shrek cross-promotion advertisements, which were televised two years before plaintiff pitched her ideas to Mars, and which featured two animated M&M’s characters together with characters from the Shrek films.
Under New Jersey law, a party may incur liability for the misappropriation of an idea if (1) the idea was novel; (2) it was made in confidence to the defendant; and (3) it was adopted and used by the defendant in connection with his own activities. The court explained that although novelty has not been clearly defined under New Jersey law, courts have provided some guidelines, including that an idea is not novel if it was “merely a different application of a long-established principle or if a competitive product similar to the plaintiff’s was already on the market.”
In addition to novelty, a plaintiff must show that the idea was shared in confidence. According to the court, New Jersey courts have held that an idea is not accorded protection “unless it is acquired and used in such circumstances that the law will imply a contractual or fiduciary relationship between the parties.” New Jersey defines a fiduciary relationship as one in which one party places trust and confidence in another who is in a dominant or superior position.
The court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss because plaintiff’s idea lacked novelty and because her idea was not shared in confidence. According to the court, plaintiff’s idea was “merely a variation on a basic theme.” The court noted that plaintiff’s idea was general and undeveloped: she “did not draft any examples or sketches of the advertisement, did not specify the medium the advertisement would take, and did not write a script.” This lack of development is particularly important, according to the court, given the prior cross-promotion advertisements produced by Mars.
Regarding the requirement of confidentiality, the court explained that plaintiff’s amended complaint contained no factual allegations that plaintiff told O’Donnell that the idea was being shared in confidence, that she requested a confidentiality agreement or that she limited the dissemination of her idea. The court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that she and O’Donnell had a confidential or fiduciary relationship: “Ms. Vent, an entertainment broker and a business person, cold-called O’Donnell to pitch an arms-length advertisement transaction. This was not a ‘special relationship based on trust and confidence.’”