Baseball is back and with opening day officially launched on Monday, fans of the Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Phillies and Seattle Mariners were not the only sports enthusiasts with reason to celebrate. Warner Bros. scored a home run when a U.S. District Court in Southern California recently granted WB’s motion for summary judgment because plaintiffs Gold Glove Productions and writer Ryan Brooks had failed to meet their burden in showing that Brooks’ Omaha was substantially similar to Trouble with the Curve, written by Randy Brown and starring Clint Eastwood. The court stated, “that any similarities between the two works are not protectable as a matter of copyright law.” (Thanks to Loeb & Loeb, LLP., the court’s full opinion can be reviewed here.)
Brooks and Gold Glove Productions sued WB in October, 2013, asserting that Curve intentionally infringed his copyrighted screenplay, Omaha.
When reviewing the issue of whether the works were substantially similar, the District Court followed the guidance of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in employing two tests — the “intrinsic test” and the “extrinsic test,” and “[a]t summary judgment, courts apply only the extrinsic test.” “The extrinsic test…focuses on articulable similarities between the plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters, and sequence of events in two works….A court must take care to inquire only whether the protect[able] elements, standing alone, are substantially similar.” And “[c]opyright law only protects expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves.”
While plaintiff’s expert witness Richard Walter, a film professor at UCLA, sought to describe the film plots as similar, the court said his characterizations were “conveniently crafted in generalities, such that major differences in the two plots are either papered over or ignored. But even aside from these differences…the idea of a father-daughter baseball story is not protectable as a matter of copyright law.”
Next, the court examined the characters and found that “[i]n terms of personality, the characters of Gus and Coach Dodge are similar” because “[t]hey are both gruff, old-school, irascible, stubborn widowers who miss their wives and have difficulty communicating with their daughters.” However, this is not a unique character but rather “one that ‘flow[s] naturally from the works’ shared premises’ of an older baseball-devoted father attempting to become closer with his daughter.” Further, the daughters and minor supporting characters are different and do not have significant similarities.
Then, the court held that “[t]he two works share themes of father-daughter reconciliation, the breaking down of emotional barriers, and the importance of family. But these themes are inherent to many father-daughter stories.” U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer found no similarity in comparing the mood, setting and pace of the two works and he reviewed the dialogue and held that Curve, “does not appear to copy Omaha’s dialogue.” Rather, “[t]he dialogues are similar in random words, at best.”
Still, as noted by Hollywood Reporter, “the lawsuit isn’t quite over. Judge Fisher did allow the plaintiffs to file a new amended complaint” on their “remaining claims for breach of contract, tortious interference, unjust enrichment and the breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing.” Let’s see if this case goes into extra innings.