California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, March 5, 2008 (not certified for publication)
In a decision clarifying the standards applicable to idea submission claims, the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District affirmed the summary judgment dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims for breach of implied contract, breach of confidence and unjust enrichment alleging that defendant New Line Cinema used the plaintiff’s idea in making the film Wedding Crashers without compensation or credit. Applying an analysis similar to determining whether copying has occurred under the Copyright Act, the court stated, “Where . . . there is no direct evidence showing that a defendant used a plaintiff’s idea, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s work is substantially similar to plaintiff’s idea in order to raise an inference that the defendant used plaintiff’s idea, i.e., had access to and copied the idea.” The court made clear that the way to determine whether there are substantial similarities between two works is to compare them as a whole using “the common knowledge of the average reader or observer,” rather than expert or elaborate analysis. Significantly, the court rejected the plaintiff’s contention that California courts have required a lesser showing than “substantial similarity” to infer actionable “use” under state law idea submission claims.
The court reiterated, however, the long-standing principle that the comparison of works under idea submission claims is not limited to the portions of the plaintiff's works that are protectible by copyright. Nonetheless, the court held that similarities in basic ideas are insufficient for a finding of use and stated that “the degree of similarity required to meet the substantial similarity standard is high in the idea submission context.” Making an independent comparison of the Wedding Crashers to the plaintiff’s unpublished work The Party Crasher’s Handbook, the court found that “most of the similarities plaintiff points out are ideas or situations that would be common to any two works that included a wedding crashing sequence.” On this basis, the court held that “there is no substantial similarity between plaintiff’s concept and Wedding Crashers that gives rise to a triable issue of material fact regarding whether defendants used plaintiff’s concept,” and thus affirmed the lower court’s summary judgment dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.