USDC S.D. New York, October 23, 2008
The district court held that the Eddie Murphy movie Life, about a pair of wrongfully incarcerated men, did not infringe plaintiff’s copyrighted play Bronx House, a story about one man’s week-long incarceration. The court granted summary judgment to defendants on plaintiff’s copyright claim as well as his claims for breach of implied contract under New York law and unfair competition under the Lanham Act.
According to the court, at the most general level, both works deal with prison settings and wrongful convictions, but the themes, settings, plots and total concept and feel of the two works are not substantially similar. Bronx House centers around Reggie, a New York City comptroller who is falsely jailed and who for one week must try to avoid being killed by violent rival gangs until his lawyer can secure his release. Life, by contrast, is a dramatic comedy spanning sixty years in Mississippi and its plot is driven by humor and character bonding – both absent in Bronx House. The court found several elements in both works, such as prisoner inspection lines, lines demarcating boundaries at the prison, bunk beds, and authoritative police officers, are ideas and scenes a faire not protected by copyright.
The court also granted summary judgment to defendants on plaintiff’s claim for breach of implied contract under New York law. For contracts involving the sharing of an idea, the idea must have sufficient value to the defendant to constitute consideration. This value can be determined by an idea’s novelty to the buyer. Here, the court reasoned that because the alleged similarities were obvious, non-expressive ideas, there could be no value to defendants and thus no contract. For the same reason that such allegedly appropriated elements are scenes a faire they are not novel.
Lastly, the court dismissed plaintiff’s unfair competition claim under the Lanham Act. The Lanham Act governs tangible goods and not ideas or concepts. Citing the 2003 Supreme Court opinion, Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., the court held that the Lanham Act precludes actions alleging copying of creative works. Because the facts underlying plaintiff’s unfair competition claim were identical to his copyright claim, the court found that plaintiff’s Lanham Act action failed.