The Central District of California recently dismissed a copyright infringement suit brought by the creators of the screenplay for Rise against the creators of the screenplay God’s Not Dead (“GND”) for failure to state a claim.  In doing so, the court concluded that the general premise of an atheist professor challenging a Christian student’s religious beliefs was too generic to be protectable.

In the suit, screenwriters Kelly Monroe and Michael Landon Jr. filed a copyright infringement action against Pure Flix Entertainment LLC, the producers of GND, claiming that the characters, plot, sequence of events, themes and mood of the competing works were substantially similar.  Plaintiffs further claimed that, as a result of Pure Flix’s copyright infringement, Plaintiffs were prevented from making the Rise film and receiving proceeds flowing therefrom.

Judge Manuel L. Real of the Central District of California, applying the extrinsic test employed by courts within the Ninth Circuit in determining whether competing works share substantial similarity of protectable expression, dismissed the case, finding there was no substantial similarity as a matter of law.  The extrinsic test is an objective test that focuses on the articulable similarities of specific expressive elements such as plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters and sequence of events.  Benay v. Warner Bros. Entm’t, Inc., 607 F.3d 620, 624 (9th Cir, 2010).  In applying the extrinsic test, the court must first filter out and disregard unprotectable elements, such as stock ideas, concepts, situations and incidents that flow naturally from general plot lines (often referred to as “scenes a faire”).  Funky Films, Inc. v. Time Warner Entm’t Co., 462 F.3d 1072, 1077 (9th Cir. 2006).

As the Central District noted a few monts ago, once the Court has filtered out and disregarded the unprotectable elements, the Court “inquire only into whether the protectible elements, standing alone, are substantially similar.”  Silas v. Home Box Office, Inc., 2016 WL 4409191, at *8 (C.D. Cal., Aug. 17, 2016) (emphasis in original).

The court rejected Plaintiffs’ assertion that the works’ plots and sequences of events are substantially similar, finding that although the works share the general premise of an atheist professor challenging a Christian student’s religious beliefs – a general plot idea that is not protectable – the two works tell materially different stories and the only similarities identified by Plaintiffs are scenes a faire.  The court also found no protectable similarity in characters, finding that, beyond Plaintiffs’ claimed similarities between the characters in the competing works, which the court found to flow naturally from the works’ shared premise, the characters “share no other significant similarities” and the works’ depictions of characters is “strikingly different.”  The court also challenged Plaintiffs’ claim that the atheist professor characters in the respective works eventually question their atheist beliefs and ultimately turn back to God, stating that, as to Rise, the matter of whether the atheist professor eventually accepts God is “at best . . . ambiguous.”  The court also found that Rise contains highly controversial themes, such as sexuality and adultery, which are completely absent from GND, and exhibits a more serious mood than GND.

The decision demonstrates that courts within the Ninth Circuit will not allow copyright infringement claims to proceed past the pleading stage where the plaintiff’s claimed similarities between the works relate to unprotectable elements or amount only to generic similarities that flow naturally from a general plot idea shared by two works.