While screenwriters, musicians, music companies and all the rest of us may feel as if life’s sufficiently chaotic sometimes that a planetary breakdown is under way and space travel might be a necessity to preserve life, those fantastical circumstances played a central role in a real copyright dispute between a scribe and a record label. And, in this instance, a U.S. District Court in Manhattan found the facts too cosmic, ruling in favor of Warner Music Group and dismissing screenwriter Charles Bollfrass’ copyright infringement case for failure to state a valid claim.
Bollfrass wrote Panspermia/Exogenesis, a screenplay that he calls a “cinematic science-fiction rock opera.” It tells a story of the impending destruction of humanity due to a planetary breakdown, and, in it, astronauts thwart humanity’s ruin by spreading human life to unpopulated planets via space travel. In 2005, Bollfrass contacted three bands, including the group Muse, to score the film, providing them a copy of his screenplay. Muse declined his offer but, in 2009, Warner Music Group released their album The Resistance with the trilogy of tunes Exogenesis I, Exogenesis II and Exogenesis III. The album’s liner notes stated this sequence tells, “a story of humanity coming to an end and everyone pinning their hopes on a group of astronauts who go out to explore space and spread humanity to another planet.”
Bollfrass sued Warner Music Group, claiming copyright infringement, unfair trade practices and arguing Muse’s Exogenesis: Symphony was substantially similar to his screenplay with both featuring plots involving a planetary breakdown, astronauts and space travel to spread human life to other planets. He also claimed the cover of The Resistance used an image that the band stole from the storyboards of his rock opera.
U.S. District Judge Louis L. Stanton was unconvinced by Bollfrass’ claims and granted Warner’s motion to dismiss. The judge ruled the case had “practically no legal or factual basis.” While a plot may be protected by copyright, another piece will not be found to have infringed if the similarities are “only at general levels of abstraction,” because these would just be ideas, unprotected by the Copyright Act of 1976. In this case, the judge said, “The similarity of the two works here lies in their concepts, abstracted to a high degree of generality.” While both works dealt with planetary breakdown and space travel, the treatment was markedly different, he found, noting Muse’s lyrics lacked a plot and the liner notes’ story line was too general and abstract to infringe on Bollfrass’ copyright.
His unfair competition claim also failed because he based it solely on Warner’s distribution of songs he asserted had infringed; the claim, therefore, was preempted by the Copyright Act.
Despite the seemingly quirky nature of Bollfrass’ case, the judge did not find it frivolous and denied Warner’s request for attorney fees.
Curious about the music at core of this dispute? Here’s a sample for those ready for some weekend “cross pollinating:”