Contributions

Clarifying the Liability Threshold in Copyright Infringement Claims

by Aaron Lichter 1

Copy­right infringe­ment claims ordi­nar­i­ly present extreme­ly close ques­tions of fact. 2 Indeed, as Judge Learned Hand once stat­ed, “[t]he test for infringe­ment of a copy­right is of neces­si­ty vague,” and any deci­sions “must there­fore inevitably be ad hoc.” 3 This arti­cle dis­cuss­es the tests courts use when con­sid­er­ing ques­tions of copy­right infringe­ment, and iden­ti­fies some aspects of these tests that would ben­e­fit from some clar­i­fi­ca­tion. First, I dis­cuss the frame­work of copy­right law and the tests courts have devel­oped to deter­mine issues of copy­right infringe­ment. Sec­ond, I focus on the “total con­cept and feel test,” and ana­lyze dif­fer­ences in how the test has been applied to var­i­ous types of cre­ative works. I con­clude by argu­ing that courts should clar­i­fy how the “total con­cept and feel” test should be applied when con­sid­er­ing works of com­plex fiction.

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In order to estab­lish that copy­right infringe­ment has occurred, a plain­tiff must demon­strate that: (1) it has own­er­ship of a valid copy­right; and (2) the defen­dant copied “con­stituent ele­ments of the work that are orig­i­nal.” 4 Under the Copy­right Act of 1976, the exis­tence of a valid copy­right is pre­sumed once the fix­a­tion require­ment is met. 5 “Orig­i­nal­i­ty requires only that the author make the selec­tion or arrange­ment [of ele­ments] inde­pen­dent­ly …  and that it dis­play some min­i­mal lev­el of cre­ativ­i­ty.” 6

To prove infringe­ment of the orig­i­nal work, a plain­tiff must pro­vide evi­dence either that the defen­dant direct­ly copied pro­tectable mate­r­i­al, or that the defen­dant cre­at­ed a work with ele­ments that are “sub­stan­tial­ly sim­i­lar” to pro­tectable mate­r­i­al. 7 For copy­right infringe­ment to be action­able, the unau­tho­rized use of a copy­right­ed work must rise above a de min­imis thresh­old. 8

The Sec­ond and Ninth Cir­cuits, which hear a sub­stan­tial pro­por­tion of all copy­right infringe­ment cas­es, have adopt­ed anal­o­gous tests for deter­min­ing when two works are sub­stan­tial­ly sim­i­lar. The Sec­ond Cir­cuit has adopt­ed the “ordi­nary observ­er test,” which asks “whether an aver­age lay observ­er would rec­og­nize the alleged copy as hav­ing been appro­pri­at­ed from the copy­right­ed work.” 9 In instances where a work con­tains both pro­tectable and non-pro­tectable ele­ments, the Sec­ond Cir­cuit applies the “dis­cern­ing ordi­nary observ­er test,” 10 which requires the court to “attempt to extract the unpro­tectable ele­ments from [its] con­sid­er­a­tion and ask whether the pro­tectable ele­ments, stand­ing alone are sub­stan­tial­ly sim­i­lar.” 11 The court must also con­sid­er the “total con­cept and feel” of the two works. 12

The Ninth Cir­cuit uses a two-part analy­sis, con­sist­ing of an “extrin­sic test and an intrin­sic test” to deter­mine whether two works are sub­stan­tial­ly sim­i­lar. 13 The extrin­sic test objec­tive­ly com­pares “spe­cif­ic expres­sive ele­ments” of the works, such as their dia­logue and char­ac­ters. 14 The intrin­sic test is a sub­jec­tive eval­u­a­tion of whether an “ordi­nary, rea­son­able audi­ence” would con­clude that two works have a sub­stan­tial­ly sim­i­lar total con­cept and feel. 15

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The “total con­cept and feel” test exists as a means for courts to ensure that works that are pri­mar­i­ly com­pi­la­tions of unpro­tectable ele­ments are not found to be infring­ing. 16 This aligns with the Supreme Court’s state­ment in Feist Pub­li­ca­tions, where the Court held that such com­pi­la­tions can be pro­tect­ed by copy­right if the “selec­tion, coor­di­na­tion, and arrange­ment [of unpro­tectable ele­ments] are suf­fi­cient­ly orig­i­nal to mer­it pro­tec­tion.” 17

The test’s appli­ca­tion and over­all impor­tance depend on the nature of the works being exam­ined. For works of fic­tion, the “total con­cept and feel” analy­sis requires that courts scru­ti­nize works for sim­i­lar­i­ties in how they express more abstract con­cepts, such as their “struc­ture, mood, details, and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion,” rather than spe­cif­ic plot ele­ments or char­ac­ters. 18 The test is far more impor­tant when com­par­ing works that are pri­mar­i­ly cre­at­ed for chil­dren, since children’s works are often less com­plex than those geared towards adults. 19 For cre­ative works out­side the lit­er­ary realm, such as tex­tiles, courts look at whether the works being com­pared used the same unpro­tectable ele­ments so sim­i­lar­ly as to con­sti­tute infringe­ment. 20

Despite the some­what amor­phous nature of the “total con­cept and feel” test, it serves a very impor­tant pur­pose in pro­tect­ing against copy­right infringe­ment. As the Sec­ond Cir­cuit not­ed in Tufenkian, “infringe­ment analy­sis is not sim­ply a mat­ter of ascer­tain­ing sim­i­lar­i­ty between com­po­nents viewed in iso­la­tion”; if this were the case, then an appro­pri­at­ing par­ty could use the same under­ly­ing unpro­tectable ele­ments in an almost iden­ti­cal man­ner, but would avoid run­ning afoul of the copy­right laws sim­ply by avoid­ing direct­ly copy­ing more than a de min­imis por­tion of the original’s pro­tectable ele­ments. 21 The “total con­cept and feel” test pre­vents this outcome.

The biggest trou­ble with the “total con­cept and feel” test comes from fig­ur­ing out how to apply it to works of fic­tion. Unlike cre­ative works such as tex­tiles, which con­sist pri­mar­i­ly of arrange­ments of unpro­tectable ele­ments, even the most banal work of fic­tion will con­tain some orig­i­nal, pro­tectable ele­ments. Would it be pos­si­ble for the total con­cept and feel of two works of com­plex fic­tion to be sim­i­lar enough to amount to infringe­ment, even when they oth­er­wise do not share any sub­stan­tial­ly sim­i­lar pro­tectable ele­ments? Nei­ther the Sec­ond nor Ninth Cir­cuits have clar­i­fied this issue. Per­haps there is an extreme­ly low prob­a­bil­i­ty of this issue ever aris­ing: if two com­plex works of fic­tion shared the same total con­cept and feel, it also would be like­ly that they share some pro­tectable elements.

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Despite the low prob­a­bil­i­ty of the issue ever aris­ing, courts should clar­i­fy the role that the “total con­cept and feel” test should play when con­sid­er­ing two works of com­plex fic­tion. Case law regard­ing children’s books sup­ply the most log­i­cal exten­sion: courts could treat the “total con­cept and feel” test as one fac­tor in its infringe­ment analy­sis of adult works of fic­tion, and sim­ply place less empha­sis on it than when con­sid­er­ing children’s lit­er­a­ture. 22 This approach would reflect the ad hoc nature of copy­right deci­sions. Alter­na­tive­ly, courts could lim­it using the “total con­cept and feel” test to spe­cif­ic types of works where its use is par­tic­u­lar­ly appro­pri­ate, such as tex­tiles and children’s books. How­ev­er, this would under­mine copy­right protections—as described above, the “total con­cept and feel” test pro­vides a form of pro­tec­tion that a com­par­i­son of indi­vid­ual ele­ments can­not. Over­all, the pro­tec­tive pow­er of the “total con­cept and feel” test out­weighs some con­cerns regard­ing its rel­a­tive ambiguity.

Notes:

  1. The fol­low­ing arti­cle reflects my expe­ri­ence in the 2016 Car­do­zo BMI Moot Court Com­pe­ti­tion. The competition’s fac­tu­al back­ground con­cerned a fan of the Char­lie Trot­ter series (a fic­tion­al­ized Har­ry Pot­ter) who cre­at­ed a screen­play for a movie that made use of many ele­ments sim­i­lar to ele­ments from Char­lie Trot­ter, and that direct­ly ref­er­enced a pro­tectable ele­ment from Char­lie Trot­ter. This year’s prob­lem pre­sent­ed the ques­tion of whether the defendant’s fan-fic­tion film infringed the plain­tiffs’ copy­right in Char­lie Trot­ter by mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ing pro­tectable ele­ments. As a part of the inquiry, I exam­ined whether the fact pat­tern sup­port­ed an infer­ence of copy­right infringe­ment under well-estab­lished tests for “sub­stan­tial sim­i­lar­i­ty,” and the less often applied “total con­cept and feel” test. A lack of high­ly rel­e­vant case law made it dif­fi­cult to say for cer­tain whether the “total con­cept and feel” test did or did not sup­port that infer­ence.
  2. Peter F. Gaito Archi­tec­ture LLC v. Simone Dev. Corp., 602 F.3d 57, 63 (2d Cir. 2010).
  3. Peter Pan Fab­rics, Inc. v. Mar­tin Wein­er Corp., 274 F.2d 487, 489 (2d Cir. 1960).
  4. Feist Publ’ns, Inc. v. Rur­al Tel. Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 361 (1991).
  5. Matthew Ben­der & Co. v. West Pub. Co., 158 F.3d 693, 702 (2d Cir. 1998).
  6. Feist, 499 U.S. at 358.
  7. See Funky Films, Inc. v. Time Warn­er Entm’t Co., 462 F.3d 1072, 1076 (9th Cir. 2006); Walk­er v. Time Life Films, Inc., 784 F.2d 44, 48 (2d Cir. 1986).
  8. E.g., Gor­don v. Nex­tel Commc’ns., 345 F.3d 922, 924 (6th Cir. 2003); New­ton v. Dia­mond, 388 F.3d 1189, 1192–93 (9th Cir. 2003); Ring­gold v. Black Entm’t Tele­vi­sion, 126 F.3d 70, 74–75 (2d Cir. 1997).
  9. Warn­er Bros. Inc. v. Amer­i­can Broad­cast­ing Com­pa­nies, Inc., 654 F.2d 204, 208 (2d Cir. 1981) (inter­nal quo­ta­tion marks omit­ted).
  10. Hogan v. DC Comics, 48 F. Supp. 2d 298, 309 (S.D.N.Y. 1999).
  11. Knit­waves, Inc. v. Lol­ly­togs Ltd., 71 F.3d 996, 1002 (2d Cir. 1995) (empha­sis added).
  12. Id. at 1003.
  13. Cav­a­lier v. Ran­dom House, Inc., 297 F.3d 815, 822 (9th Cir. 2002).
  14. Id.
  15. Kouf v. Walt Dis­ney Pic­tures & Tele­vi­sion, 16 F.3d 1042, 1045 (9th Cir. 1994).
  16. Knit­waves, 71 F.3d at 1003.
  17. Feist Publ’ns, 499 U.S. at 358.
  18. Allen v. Scholas­tic, Inc., 739 F. Supp. 2d 642, 656–58 (S.D.N.Y. 2011) (con­trast­ing “struc­ture, mood, details, and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion” of children’s book and Har­ry Pot­ter and the Gob­let of Fire). See also Mena v. Fox Entm’t Group, No. 11 Civ. 5501 BSJ RLE, 2012 WL 4741389, at *14–15 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 29, 2012) (exam­in­ing “selec­tion, coor­di­na­tion, and arrange­ment of scenes and ele­ments”). For an exam­ple of appli­ca­tion of the “total con­cept and feel” test in the Ninth Cir­cuit under its extrin­sic test, see Cav­a­lier, 297 F.3d at 824–25.
  19. Williams v. Crich­ton, 84 F.3d 581, 589 (2d Cir. 1996) (com­par­ing children’s book about a dinosaur amuse­ment park to Juras­sic Park).
  20. E.g., Tufenkian Imp./Exp. Ven­tures, Inc. v. Ein­stein Moomjy, Inc., 338 F.3d 127, 133–34 (2d Cir. 2003) (Per­sian rugs); Knit­waves, 71 F.3d at 1004 (sweaters). See also Bois­son v. Ban­ian, Ltd., 273 F.3d 262, 273–74 (2d Cir. 2001) (find­ing infringe­ment on the basis of pro­tectable and high­ly sim­i­lar com­bi­na­tions of pat­terns, col­ors, and let­ters in two alpha­bet rugs).
  21. Tufenkian, 338 F.3d at 133, 135.
  22. See Williams, 84 F.3d at 589.