IP Law Daily Horror filmmaker fails to show AppleTV series was substantially similar to her work
Friday, May 29, 2020

Horror filmmaker fails to show AppleTV series was substantially similar to her work

By Linda O’Brien, J.D., LL.M.

In her copyright infringement suit, a filmmaker failed to demonstrate that the AppleTV series’ Servant was substantially similar to her psychological thriller film "The Truth About Emanuel."

In a copyright infringement suit against the makers of an AppleTV series alleging that three episodes of the series was an unauthorized copy and television adaption of her psychological thriller film, the plaintiff filmmaker failed to demonstrate that the two works were substantially similar, the federal district court in Los Angeles has held. Although the alleged similarities consisted of some unprotectable elements, the plaintiff failed to show substantial similarities in the works’ plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters, and sequence of events. Thus, the amended complaint was dismissed without leave to amend (Gregorini v. Apple Inc., May 28, 2020, Walter, J.).

In January 2020, director and writer Francesca Gregorini filed a complaint alleging that Apple Inc. and other defendants infringed her copyright in her 2013 feature film, "The Truth About Emanuel." Specifically, Gregorini claimed that three episodes of the television series "Servant" on AppleTV+ was a "wholesale copy and unauthorized television adaption" of Emanuel. After the plaintiff amended the complaint, the defendants moved for dismissal on the grounds that the plaintiff’s film and the television series episodes were not substantially similar as a matter of law.

Substantial similarity. The plaintiff failed to plausibly plead there was a substantial similarity in protected expression between the two works, the court found. In determining substantial similarity an extrinsic test is employed, which is "objective in nature" and "focuses on articulable similarities between the plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters, and sequence of events."

Though the film and Servant episodes shared a basic plot premise, the two were completely different stories, the court explained. The plaintiff conceded that the works’ purportedly basic shared premise—a mother traumatized by her baby’s death cares for a doll she believes to be real and hires a nanny/babysitter to care for the doll—was not protected by copyright law. Beyond the unprotectable shared premise, the works’ storylines diverge drastically. The plot in Emanuel focuses on the relationship between the mother and nanny with a cathartic end, while the plot of the Servant episodes focuses on a deeply religious and paranormal nanny who possibly brings the doll to life.

Further, the court noted, the rough linear chronology in the two works was not by itself protectable. The alleged similarities in the sequence of events consisted of several discrete scenes that were unrelated to the overall sequence of events in the works. There was also no protection for stock themes or themes that flow from the basic premise. Beyond the basic themes of grief and delusion, the primary themes of Emanuel and Servant were drastically different.

Moreover, the characters of the two works were not similar. According to the court, although there were basic similarities between the characters, they were remarkably and significantly different. The works each included characters that had no counterpart in the other work. The settings of the two works were also very different since Emanuel took place in numerous locations, while in Servant, all of the action took place in or around the house.

Finally, although both works were psychological thrillers, the works had different moods, proceeded at different paces, and there were no allegations in the complaint of any specific dialogue shared between the works. As a result, any alleged overlap between Emanuel and Servant was not pervasive or substantial enough to demonstrate substantial similarity and the alleged similarities between the works "pale in comparison to the differences in the plot, themes, mood, setting, pace, characters, and sequence of events," the court concluded.

This case is No. 2:20-cv-00406-JFW-JC.

Attorneys: David A. Erikson (Erikson Law Group) for Francesca Gregorini. Diana Palacios (Davis Wright Tremaine LLP) for Apple Inc.

Companies: Apple Inc.

MainStory: TopStory Copyright GCNNews CaliforniaNews

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