The critics went crazy with their raves when Beyonce Giselle Knowles-Carter, aka just Beyonce, let loose with a grim, discordant, pained blast with her latest album Lemonade. It was promoted with a broadcast HBO special, which, in turn, had a suitably moody, terse trailer. That tiny cinematic bit, however, especially flipped out an indie filmmaker, who sued Beyonce, asserting that her visual sip of Lemonade, 39 of the 60 seconds in the trailer, had infringed on his copyrights for his film Palinoia multiple times and in multiple ways.
But a noted federal judge in Manhattan, displaying he could be quite the cineaste/critic, had not only a simple but also a fast and stinging reply: No way.
U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff, just weeks after the case was filed, has dismissed the summer suit against Beyoncé, with prejudice. He ruled just before Labor Day but his 32-page opinion has now become available (thanks to SDNY blog for putting it online). It’s a detailed burn of the claims by Matthew Fulks, the Louisville, Ky.-based, independent filmmaker who sued Beyonce and five other defendants, claiming elements of the film trailer and the film itself promoting Lemonade infringed upon his short Palinoia.
Fulks’ suit named Beyonce, Sony, Music Entertainment, HBO, S. Carter Enterprises, and the star’s entertainment and management company, Parkwood Entertainment. His original complaint was filed on June 8, and was amended on June 20, and July 13. He asserts infringement with: (1) nine examples of “visual” similarities; (2) “audio” similarities; and (3) similarities in “total concept and feel. But Rakoff dismantles these claims, one by one, and with photos in side-by-side comparisons of the respective works.
Rakoff writes that he gets that Palinoia depicts “the pain of a tumultuous relationship,” and consists of “seemingly unrelated visuals in a rapid montage with the recitation of a poem used as voiceover against a distinctive soundtrack.” Meantime, he sees Lemonade as telling “the story of an African American woman’s journey from heartbreak to healing,” featuring “11 songs from Lemonade, connected by interludes of dialogue and poems.”
The two share little in common and certainly not anything that legally would be infringement, he says. The judge finds zero merit in Fulks’ claim that there is something original that can be copyrighted in fluorescent lighting of a shabby garage, street graffiti, or an ordinary recitation of poetry. He says bluntly that Fulks’ “alleged similarities consist almost entirely of clearly defined ideas not original to him,” adding, that to “the very limited extent that there are even any superficial similarities, the[y] are overwhelmed by the works’ vastly different creative choices and overall aesthetic feel.”
The two works’ vastly differing, overall aesthetic feel keeps resurfacing in Rakoff’s dissection of his ruling denying infringement. It also relies heavily on the doctrine of scenes à faire, under which “elements of an image that flow naturally and necessarily from the choice of a given concept cannot be claimed as original.” The judge dismisses Fulks’ claims fast as to “audio similarities,” and similarities in “total concept and feel.” Rakoff tossed the case, ruling that “no reasonable jury, properly instructed, could find infringement … based on the works’ audio” or “find that the ‘total concept and overall feel’ of Palinoia” is substantially similar to that of Lemonade.