USCA Seventh Circuit, October 7, 2008

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The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for defendants in this copyright infringement suit relating to the movie John Q. (We summarized the district court decision in March, 2008.)

The Seventh Circuit stated that summary judgment is appropriate where no reasonable juror could find that two works are substantially similar, and that is the situation here. Pro se plaintiff listed similarities between his script Kharisma Heart of Gold and the script for John Q., such as sick children, caring fathers, hospital nurses, a beeping heart monitor, and the lack of health insurance. The court held that these are “generic similarities far removed from the realm of protected expression.”

In addition, the court held that the central characters, theme, and plot in John Q. differ markedly from those in plaintiff’s screenplay. Kharisma Heart of Gold is about a wealthy businessman who discovers his daughter needs a series of operations to save her life, but the IRS has frozen his assets and his health insurance has lapsed so he is unable to pay for the surgery. He decides to take out a life insurance policy on himself and commits suicide, leaving his family with enough money to pay for the operations. John Q. tells the story of a factory worker whose son collapses during a baseball game. On the way to the emergency room, John learns that his son needs a heart transplant but his insurance company refuses to cover the cost. So John decides to hold everyone in the hospital emergency room hostage to force them to put his son on the transplant list and considers killing himself so that his heart can be used as the donor organ. In the end, the son receives a heart from a car accident victim and John Q. is arrested and charged with kidnapping everyone he held hostage at the hospital.

Finally, the court noted that New Line and John Q. screenwriter James Kearns provided uncontroverted evidence that Kearns could not have copied plaintiff’s script because John Q. was written five years before plaintiff’s script was written. Specifically, New Line submitted a declaration from Kearns stating that he wrote John Q. in 1993 and then sold the script to Island World Productions. New Line also submitted the purchase contract and the declaration of Island World’s senior vice-president confirming that the company bought Kearns’s screenplay in 1993, and New Line submitted several articles published in 1993 discussing Kearns’s screenplay.

The court summed up by saying, “Like the district court, we detect no pertinent similarities between the screenplays, which should not be surprising because New Line's undisputed evidence establishes that John Q. was written five years before Tillman's work. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment.”