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District court dismisses copyright infringement suit alleging creators of VH1 reality TV show “Love & Hip Hop” copied plaintiffs’ treatment for a reality show about women involved with hip hop artists, holding treatment contained few, if any, protectable elements, and even if protectable, such elements were not substantially similar to Defendants’ show.

In 2014, 8th Wonder Entertainment LLC, Nickie Lum-Davis and Trisha Lum sued Viacom International Inc., MTV Networks and others involved in the production of the VH1 reality television show “Love & Hip Hop.” Plaintiffs alleged defendants copied their one-page treatment for a reality television show entitled “Hip Hop Wives” that plaintiffs submitted to VH1 in 2009 about the lives of four women involved with famous hip hop artists. VH1 eventually passed on the show and in 2011 premiered “Love & Hip Hop,” a reality television show about women in the hip hop industry.

Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the treatment for HHW contained only unprotectable elements. The district court granted the motion, holding that the concepts described in plaintiffs’ treatment were “general tropes from the saturated market of reality television programming” and pointing out that those general ideas are not protectable elements that give rise to a claim for copyright infringement. It specifically highlighted several other reality television shows already depicting the lives of celebrity wives, such as the “Real Housewives” series, and other reality-based television shows focused on women in relationships with famous individuals. The district court explained that the general themes described in plaintiffs’ treatment, like those in similar reality shows — relationship difficulties, legal challenges, troubled family dynamics, female friendships and the burdens of the lifestyles of the rich and famous — are not protectable original expressions.

Additionally, the district court found that, assuming arguendo the existence of protectable elements, no reasonable jury could conclude that the VH1 show was substantially similar to plaintiffs’ HHW treatment. Applying the extrinsic test to determine substantial similarity, the district court examined each work’s plot, sequence of events, themes, mood, dialogue, setting, pace and characters. Among other findings, it concluded that even though the works make use of the same people as characters, real people are not copyrightable original characters, and the treatment’s lack of specific details do not allow for any showing of similarity. The court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the evidence of access gives rise to an inference of copying, by concluding that no amount of access eliminates the need for a showing of substantial similarity.