Second Circuit affirms district court’s dismissal of copyright infringement claims against Margot Louise Watts’ novel The Light Between Oceans and film adaptation of that novel for lack of substantial similarity, concluding that plaintiff’s alleged similarities constituted unprotectable ideas or scènes à faire, or were instances of de minimis similarity.
Screenplay author Joseph Nobile brought an action against defendant Margot Louise Watts, writing under the pseudonym M. L. Stedman, and four publisher and film production defendants, alleging that Watts’ New York Times bestselling 2012 novel The Light Between Oceans infringed Nobile’s copyright in his unpublished screenplay “The Rootcutter,” which he registered with the Copyright Office in 2004. The Light Between Oceans was published by defendant Simon & Schuster Inc. and produced and distributed as a film by DreamWorks II Development Co. and American Broadcasting Co. Inc.
Nobile’s work describes the story of a barren couple living on a rugged island off the coast of Ireland. The story includes the scene of a “traumatic and violent stillborn birth.” Later, the husband finds a woman in labor on a sailboat by the shore. The husband assists in the delivery, after which the woman dies. The husband decides to keep the baby boy and persuades his wife to do so as well. The couple attempts to leave the island with the baby, but they are caught in a sudden storm, during which the baby falls from a steep hill and dies. The Light Between Oceans explores the lives of a couple maintaining a lighthouse on an island off the coast of Australia. The wife suffers two miscarriages and delivers a stillborn child. One day, the couple finds a small boat containing a baby girl and a dead man. The wife decides to keep the baby, and the couple raises her for four years on the island. On the mainland, the couple’s secret is discovered, and they are forced to return the girl to her birth mother.
The district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss Nobile’s copyright infringement claim, analyzing the screenplay and novel, and determining that the works were not substantially similar. (Read our summary of the district court’s decision [link].) The Second Circuit affirmed this ruling, focusing on three protectability limitations: the idea/expression dichotomy, scènes à faire and de minimis similarities. The appellate court ruled that the shared premise — a childless couple who has suffered three miscarriages or stillbirths, finds a baby in a boat washed up on an island and decides to keep the baby, which their recent stillbirth allows them to pass off as their own — to be an unprotectable idea.
The court held that the remaining similarities flowed naturally from this unprotectable premise, making them scènes à faire. According to the court, the couple’s grieving and the wife’s emotional and physical reactions flow naturally from the miscarriages/stillbirths, and finding and concealing the dead adult accompanying the baby, feeling anxiety about their fraud, and dealing with the challenges of parenting, all flow naturally from the decision to keep the child.
Finally, the Second Circuit addressed two of the “literal similarities” of dialogue that Nobile alleged (“I hate this place” and “just you and [I/me]”). The Second Circuit held that these snippets were unoriginal four-word dialogue sequences, the former having a different meaning in the two works and the latter flowing naturally from its context. The court found these similarities de minimis.
The Second Circuit also affirmed the district court’s award of attorney’s fees in light of Nobile’s “objectively unreasonable” claims and the district court’s explicit consideration of compensation and deterrence.