Court Explains Prior Dismissal of Copyright Claim Concerning Beyonce's LEMONADE Trailer

Fulkes v. Knowles-Carter et al., No. 16-4278 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 12, 2016).

Having previously granted the motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim for copyright infringement by "bottom-line order," the Court explained the reasons for its ruling.  In this case, the plaintiff alleged that defendants' distribution of a film trailer and the film itself promoting the release of Beyonce's musical album "Lemonade" infringed plaintiff's copyright in the short film "Palinoia." 

On a Rule 12 motion, the Court noted that the works themselves control, not Plaintiff's descriptions in the pleadings, and decided that the works were not substantially similar as a matter of law.  In short, "Plaintiff's alleged similarities consist almost entirely of clearly defined ideas not original to plaintiff and of stock elements with which even a casual observer would be familiar. Moreover, to the very limited extent that there are even any superficial similarities, these are overwhelmed by the works' vastly different creative choices and overall aesthetic feel. "  The Court then went through each of the 9 allegedly similar scenes.

Copyright Claim Dismissed Against Usher Because No Substantial Similarity

Edwards et al. v Usher Raymond IV et al., No. 1:13-cv-07985-DLC (S.D.N.Y. filed 05/23/14) [Doc. 36].

Plaintiffs alleged that a song recorded and published by defendants, including Usher, willfully copied the plaintiffs' original musical composition.  On defendants' Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court found that plaintiffs failed to state a claim for copyright infringement because the two songs were not substantially similar as a matter of law.  Accordingly, the Court dismissed the sole copyright infringement claim, and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claim for breach of contract.

First, the Court found that the phrase "caught up," which is the title of both songs, is not eligible for copyright protection because it is a common phrase.  Second, the Court found that lyrics from the two songs expressing the ideas in question were not substantially similar.  Third, the Court ignored bare legal conclusions in the complaint that the songs are substantially similar.  Lastly, the Court also took a "holistic" approach, and determined that the two songs' music and lyrics, considered as a whole, confirmed a lack of substantial similarity.

7th Cir. Affirms Dismissal of "Nikita"/"Natasha" Suit Against Elton John

Hobbs v. Elton John, No. 12-3652 (7th Cir. July 17, 2013).

Plaintiff composed a song entitled “Natasha” that was inspired by a brief love affair he had with a Russian waitress.  Plaintiff tried to publish  his song, but was unsuccessful. A few years later, Elton John and Bernie Taupin released a song entitled “Nikita” through a publishing company to which Plaintiff had sent a copy of “Natasha.” Believing that “Nikita” was based upon “Natasha,” Plaintiff eventually demanded compensation
from John and Taupin, and ultimately filed suit asserting a copyright infringement claim and two related state law claims. The defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim, and the district court granted the defendants’ motion.  The 7th Circuit affirmed.

The Court held that Plaintiff failed to state a claim for copyright infringement because, even when the allegedly similar elements between the songs are considered in combination, the songs are not substantially similar.  Defendants conceded that Plaintiff owned a valid copyright in the song and that Defendants had access to it.  "Thus, the defendants can only prevail on their motion to dismiss if 'Natasha' and 'Nikita'
are not 'substantially similar' as a matter of law. That is, if as a matter of law 'Natasha' and 'Nikita' do not 'share enough unique features to give rise to a breach of the duty not to copy another’s work'."  The Court found that Plaintiff's argument "flounders on two well-established principles of copyright law."  First, that the Copyright Act does not protect general ideas, but only the particular expression of an idea.  And second, even at the level of particular expression, the Copyright Act does not protect “incidents, characters or settings which are as a practical matter indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic.” A careful review of both songs’ lyrics reveals that Plaintiff's first four allegedly similar elements are expressed differently in “Natasha” and “Nikita.” And the remaining similar elements are rudimentary, commonplace, standard, or unavoidable in popular love songs.  The two songs simply “tell different stories."

Because “Natasha” and “Nikita” are not “substantially similar” as a matter of law, Plaintiff's copyright infringement claim failed as a matter of law.

No Infringement Of Plot

Bolfrass v Warner Music Group, No. 1:12-cv-06648-LLS (S.D.N.Y. filed 04/02/2013) [Doc. 13].

Plaintiff alleged that a song published by defendant Warner Music ("Warner") infringed his copyright on his screenplay, in violation of the Copyright Act of 1976.  Warner moved to dismiss and for attorneys fees.  Warner's motion to dismiss was granted and its application for the award of attorney's s and costs was denied.

First, the Court examined whether Plaintiff's "plot" was afforded copyright protection.  The Court found that "the similarity two works here lies in their concepts, abstracted to a high degree of generality. Both are based on a concept of planetary breakdown and space travel, but their treatment is very different."  It concluded that "Because the lyrics of "Exogenesis: Symphony" do not express a plot, they do not infringe on "Panspermia: ExoGenesis."  The online liner notes a plot, but one that is far too abstract and general to infringe on Bollfrass' copyright."  Accordingly, the copyright claim was dismissed.

Second, the Court examined Plaintiff's claim for unfair competition, and found that it was preempted by the Copyright Act.  "Bollfrass' claim for unfair competition based only on Jarner's distribution of the allegedly
infringing song is therefore preempted by the Copyright Act.".

Third, the Court examined Warner's request for attorneys fees.  Ultimately, the request was denied on a "close call."