- Court grants defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s copyright infringement claim, holding that defendants’ screenplays for the movie “Monster-In-Law” are not substantially similar to plaintiff’s screenplays “When Mom Is the Other Woman.”
Plaintiff wrote four screenplays called “When Mom Is the Other Woman” about a woman fighting with her future mother-in-law. Plaintiff filed suit for copyright infringement and racketeering against 34 defendants based on the movie and screenplays titled “Monster-In-Law” starring Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda.
In 2009, the district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim and dismissed all of plaintiff’s claims. The plaintiff moved for reconsideration, arguing that she still had viable claims for infringement based on defendants’ screenplays rather than defendants’ movie. The court agreed and granted plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration in part, allowing plaintiff to litigate the screenplay claims.
In this action, the court compared plaintiff’s four screenplays to five of defendants’ eighteen screenplays and concluded that “no genuine issue of material fact exists regarding the substantial similarity of the works.” The court held that, in the Ninth Circuit, a plaintiff must prove substantial similarity under both the extrinsic and intrinsic tests. The extrinsic analysis is objective, and based on specific criteria which can be listed and analyzed. The intrinsic analysis is subjective, and focuses on whether a reasonable person would find the work substantially similar. In the Ninth Circuit, on a motion for summary judgment, courts apply only the extrinsic test, which compares the articulable similarities between the plot, theme, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters and sequence of events of the works. Further, a court must only inquire whether the protectible elements of the two works, standing alone, are substantially similar, excluding from its analysis similarities based on non-protectible ideas, or scenes a faire, situations and incidents that flow necessarily or naturally from a basic plot premise.
The court began by examining plaintiff’s second screenplay and defendants’ January 2003 screenplay using the extrinsic test and found that “any similarities between the works are far outweighed by the significant differences.” For example, plaintiff’s screenplays are dark dramas about an ambitious career woman who sheepishly tolerates her future mother-in-law’s abuse, while also investigating a murder. The mother-in-law lives in a poor neighborhood, the dialogue is full of expletives, and the story takes place as a flashback. In contrast, the defendants’ screenplays are comedies in which a woman who is a professional dog walker retaliates against her future mother-in-law’s abuse. The mother-in-law lives in a wealthy neighborhood, tries to convince the woman to call off the marriage by giving her $75,000, and the story takes place chronologically. While the court recognized that some similarities exist – both mothers-in-law incessantly call their sons, bring back their son’s ex-girlfriends and fake an illness to draw their sons away from his fiancée – the court concluded that most of these “flow from the screenplays’ shared generic plot of mothers who scheme to derail their sons’ pending marriage,” and could not be taken into consideration in determining whether the works are substantially similar.
The court also held that plaintiff’s third and fourth screenplays were even more different from defendants’ screenplays and also not substantially similar. Regarding plaintiff’s first screenplay, the court “finds it unnecessary to review the First version of her screenplay” based on “plaintiff’s dilatory actions in pursuing these claims.” According to the court, the plaintiff failed to register a copyright in her first version until two years after commencing the litigation.
The court declined to compare plaintiff’s screenplays to all 18 of defendants’ screenplays, stating that defendants’ general storyline remains the same throughout the various drafts. The court also dismissed the racketeering claims because they were based on the alleged copyright infringement.