USDC C.D. California, July 28, 2011

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  • District court grants defendant motion picture companies' motion for judgment on the pleadings and dismisses without leave to amend writer's claim for copyright infringement regarding "CARS" and "CARS 2", finding that defendants have sufficiently shown that the respective works are not substantially similar in their protectable elements as a matter of law. Court also dismisses plaintiff's claim for breach of implied contract as time barred by the statute of limitations.

Plaintiff, Jake Mandeville-Anthony, brought suit against defendants, The Walt Disney Company, Walt Disney Pictures, Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Pixar d/b/a Pixar Animation Studios, for copyright infringement and breach of implied contract. He alleged he is the copyright owner of two works, “Cookie & Co.” and “Cars/Auto¬Excess/Cars Chaos,” that defendants had access to those works at the time that they created the animated films “CARS” and “CARS 2,” and the spin-off series “Cars Toon,” and that defendants used those works to create their works without compensating him. Defendants asserted that their works were independently created and that the works are not substantially similar. After answering plaintiff’s complaint, defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings on both plaintiff’s copyright and contract claims. The court granted the motion and dismissed both claims without leave to amend.

The court dismissed plaintiff’s copyright infringement claim without leave to amend, finding that defendants had sufficiently shown that their movies were not substantially similar to plaintiff’s works in their protectable elements such as plot, sequence of events, pace, characters, theme, mood and setting as a matter of law and that plaintiff failed to sufficiently state a claim for copyright infringement.

At the outset, the court noted that to state a claim for copyright infringement, a plaintiff must allege that the respective works at issue are substantially similar in their protected elements. The court may determine the issue of substantial similarity as a matter of law at the pleading stage by examining and comparing the relevant works. Judgment on the pleadings in favor of defendant is appropriate where the facts asserted by plaintiff in his pleadings – including the attached works – and all reasonable inferences drawn from those facts, show the absence of substantial similarity. To assess substantial similarity as a matter of law, the court applied the objective “extrinsic test" to determine whether the protectable elements of the works, standing alone, were substantially similar. The test focuses on any articulable similarities between the plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters, and sequence of events. The court compared the elements and concluded that defendants had sufficiently shown that the protectable elements of those were not substantially similar as a matter of law.

Plaintiff asserted that the plots of the works were substantially similar, as they revolved around anthropomorphic cars, and included lead characters interacting with other cars and finding themselves in various situations that bring about humor and romance, against the backdrop of a race. The court disagreed, however, finding no substantial similarity with plot, sequence of events and pace.

Specifically, the court noted that that plaintiff's work “Cookie” revolved around a single long-distance road trip and the banter between two male characters, Mike and Brian, and included their encounters with local residents and foreigners. The plot complication was finishing the race, and the characters journey takes place over many months. Early on in the plot, it is revealed that all other racers have been disqualified and, in the final scene, the two characters win the race. Plaintiff's work “”Cars Chaos” is a synopsis that proposes general ideas and includes an outline for a possible television episode titled "Alpine Antics” involving a race through the Swiss Alps, and the purpose is to win the race. The pace is rapid, lasting only a few minutes.

In contrast, the court noted that defendants' “CARS” works involved multiple subplots. While the first motion picture, “CARS,” begins and ends with a rally car race, the film is really about friendship, falling in love and being part of a community. The second motion picture, “CARS 2,” involves races in Tokyo, Italy and England, but the races – and who wins them – are of minor consequence to the story, which focuses on good cars triumphing over evil, and includes a spy operation. The “CARS Toon” shorts use the developed personalities and friendship from the movies and show a seemingly unsophisticated character who is, in fact, a hero.

The court also rejected plaintiff’s assertion that the characters in the works – the characters described in his Controlled Chaos work and the animated three-dimensional cars from defendants' films – were substantially similar. Instead, the court agreed with defendants’ argument that the concept of animated, anthropomorphic cars as characters was unprotectable, noting that, for decades, cartoons have featured real-life objects that can talk and have personalities, and holding that characters that flow naturally from a basic plot idea are unprotectable "scenes-a-faire." The court also found that the fact that some of the respective car characters shared attributes that flowed from their make and country of origin worked against plaintiff's claim, since no property interest exists in stereotyped characters. The court also noted defendants’ assertion that plaintiff's car drawings were copies of famous cars designed and built by others, and that plaintiff did not have standing to sue for copyright of a third-party car design.

Comparing the physical characteristics of the respective characters, the court also noted that plaintiff depicted all his cars with headlights as eyes, while defendants used the entire windshield, and plaintiff's cars have arms and hands, as well as hair, eyelashes and eyebrows, while defendants' do not.

No substantial similarity existed in the central themes and moods of the works, or in their settings. Plaintiff’s “Cookie” as an upbeat "guy movie" that includes slapstick, comedy, sex and car crashes, and his “Cars Chaos” is light, and includes British quips for humor. In contrast, defendants' “CARS” works are described as comedic, romantic, sad and full of suspense. With respect to setting, “Cookie” takes place in 1988, and the long-distance rally takes the characters through various international locations. “Cars Chaos” also discusses the concept of developing stories in various international settings. In contrast, “CARS” takes place in the present day, in an imaginary version of the United States which includes a detailed depiction of the American Southwest – a setting that is crucial to the storyline. “CARS 2” also uses fictionalized versions of real landmarks and buildings adapted for the world inhabited by anthropomorphic cars. These settings are, as defendants asserted, an original combination of pure fantasy and detailed realism, and not substantially similar to plaintiff's works.

The court also concluded that plaintiff’s breach of implied contract claim was time barred by the two-year statute of limitations under California law. The two years begins to run from the date of the alleged breach and where, as here, plaintiff alleges an implied promise by defendants to pay for his idea, the limitations period begins to no later than the date on which the motion picture is released in theaters. “CARS” was released nationwide in June 2006, and the statute of limitations expired in June 2008, but Plaintiff did not bring suit until March 2011.