USDC C.D. California, January 28, 2009
On an initial motion to dismiss (which it converted to a motion for summary judgment), the court dismissed plaintiffs’ copyright and trademark claims with prejudice, holding, with respect to the copyright claim, that Twentieth Century Fox’s motion picture Robots did not infringe Hans Rosenfeld’s copyright in a live action show called Tools because the two works have substantially different plots, themes, and sequences of events. Although both works involve robots, villains who try to take over the world and heroes who emerge from obscurity, plaintiffs’ Tools is a story about human factory workers being threatened with replacement by robots, whereas Fox’s Robots features no human characters at all, depicting a world inhabited only by robots.
Applying the standards in Kouf v. Walt Disney Pictures & Television, 16 F.3d 1042 (9th Cir. 1994), the court held “that no reasonable jury could find the works are substantially similar using the objective criteria of the extrinsic test.” Specifically, “the test focuses on ‘articulable similarities between the plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters, and sequence of events’ in two works.” Here, Tools and Robots were found to have substantially different plots, themes, and sequences of events.
Plaintiffs’ Tools is a story about human factory workers being threatened with replacement by robots, whereas Fox’s Robots features no human characters at all, depicting a world inhabited only by robots. Whereas Tools’s main theme is the relationship between man and robot in modern times, the theme of Robots is “you can shine no matter what you’re made of.” Although both Tools and Robots allegedly deal with good versus evil, believing in oneself, following one’s dreams, and overcoming the “holocaustic efforts” of evil leaders, such plot themes and morals are unprotectable general ideas, rather than specific expressions of ideas.
Discussing other “random similarities” pointed to by plaintiffs, such as the fact that both heroes are young males with blonde girlfriends or the fact that the villains have diabolical laughs, the court found none of the characters similar in their specific behavior or looks. It also did not find the settings similar since the architectural features, such as industrial factories and monorails commonly seen in futuristic and fantasy genres, are scenes a faire and naturally associated with a modern, industrial, urban environment.
The court further found that because Tools is designed to be an interactive live action show, while Robots is an animated movie, the pace, mood, and production values of the two works are substantially different. Specifically, plaintiffs envisioned a darker, more dramatic production, whereas Robots is a lighthearted and funny animated movie.
Additionally, the court dismissed plaintiffs’ claims under the Lanham Act because they did not sufficiently allege that they used their mark in interstate commerce where plaintiffs’ factual allegations described only unsuccessful efforts to promote and market the concept of the Tools live action show. Because both the federal trademark and copyright claims were found to fail, the court also dismissed plaintiffs’ claim for declaratory relief with prejudice. Declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction, the court dismissed plaintiffs’ claims under Texas state law without prejudice.