USDC N.D. Illinois, December 31, 2008

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Plaintiff Chitunda Tillman filed a copyright infringement claim against New Line Cinema, claiming that the film John Q infringed his screenplay titled Kharisma (Heart of Gold) Based on Our True Story. He alleged that he wrote the screenplay in 1998, registered it with the U.S. Copyright Office that July, and submitted a copy of it to the Writers Guild of America (WGA) around the same time. In 2002, New Line released the motion picture John Q, based on a screenplay by James Kearns. Plaintiff claimed that John Q was substantially similar to Kharisma Heart of Gold and he alleged that Mr. Kearns was affiliated with the WGA, stole his screenplay, and sold it to New Line.

In March, 2008, the court granted summary judgment to defendants and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed in October, 2008. In granting summary judgment, the court held that defendants had offered credible evidence of independent creation of the screenplay for John Q, that there was no substantial similarity between the protectible elements in the two works, and the only similarities were between scenes a fair and other elements not protected by copyright.

In this decision, the court granted defendants’ motion for attorneys’ fees (under Section 505 of the Copyright Act and 42 U.S.C. § 1988) and granted their request for sanctions (pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1927) against plaintiff’s counsel (although plaintiff later proceeded pro se after his attorney withdrew from representing him). The court concluded that plaintiff’s copyright infringement claim was entirely baseless. Citing to Seventh Circuit precedent, the court stated that the two most important considerations in determining whether to award attorneys’ fees in a copyright case are the strength of the prevailing party’s case and the amount of damages or other relief the party obtained. “When the prevailing party is the defendant, who by definition receives not a small award but no award, the presumption in favor of awarding fees is very strong.” The court stated that, while it did not relish awarding fees against a pro se plaintiff, an award was justified here due to the strength of the defendants’ defense and plaintiff’s willfully blind insistence on pressing forward with the case despite the blatant deficiencies in his claims.

The defendants also requested attorneys’ fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 which provides that a court may award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party in an action brought under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985 (federal civil rights laws). Plaintiff asserted claims under these statutes for denial of equal protection, deprivation of due process, and civil conspiracy, and the court dismissed these claims. In the Seventh Circuit, a prevailing defendant is entitled to fees “only in cases in which the plaintiff’s action was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless.” The court held that plaintiff’s claims were legally frivolous because the federal civil rights laws apply only to government actions, not those of private persons, and the court granted the defendants’ request for attorneys’ fees.

The court denied defendants’ request to impose sanctions against the plaintiff (for his actions when he was proceeding pro se) because he is not an attorney, but the court granted defendants’ motion, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1927, for sanctions against plaintiff’s lawyer who “unreasonably and vexatiously multiplied the proceedings in this case” by failing to verify defendants’ evidence of independent creation and failing to compare the two works to determine if there were any similarities of protected elements.