The Complexity of Proving Copyright Infringement

Last year’s Ninth Circuit’s decision in Funky Films, Inc. v. Time Warner Entertainment is a reminder just how complex and complicated it can be proving copyright infringement. Funky Films involved a claim that the award winning Home Box Office mini-series “Six Feet Under” infringed Funky Films’ screenplay “The Funk Parlor.” At issue on appeal was the district’s court conclusion that “The Funk Parlor” and “Six Feet Under” were not substantially similar.

In order to bring a claim for copyright infringement, a plaintiff must establish (1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of protected elements of the plaintiff’s work. Ordinarily, ownership is established by way of a copyright registration certificate and tends not to be the subject of much debate. Courts spend most of their time and effort analyzing the elements of the infringement prong. Absent evidence of direct copying, “proof of infringement” involves fact-based showings that the defendant had “access” to the plaintiff’s work and that the two works are “substantially similar.”

In Funky Films, the district court assumed that the defendant had access to the plaintiff’s work. Ordinarily, in order to establish “access” a plaintiff must show that the defendant had an opportunity to view or copy the plaintiff’s work. This opportunity must be a “reasonable opportunity” and not a “bare possibility” in the sense that anything is possible.

Access can be established by way of circumstantial evidence. A court will consider either (1) a particular chain of events which establishes a link between plaintiff’s work and the defendant’s access (e.g., dealings with a movie studio or record label), or (2) that the plaintiff’s work has been widely disseminated.

After establishing access, a court will turn to whether the two works are substantially similar. In the Ninth Circuit, substantial similarity is inextricably linked to the issue of access. This is known as the “inverse ratio rule” and requires lower standard of proof of substantial similarity when a high degree of access is shown.

Proof of substantial similarity is satisfied by a two part test of extrinsic similarity and intrinsic similarity. The extrinsic test is objective in nature and requires the plaintiff to identify specific criteria which it alleges have been copied. The intrinsic test is an examination of an ordinary person’s subjective impression of the similarities between the two works, and is the exclusive province of the jury. Since Funky Films addressed the district court’s grant of summary judgment, the court’s focus was the extrinsic test.

Applying the extrinsic test the Ninth Circuit found that at a very high level of generality, both works shared certain plot similarities. However, this would not be enough to support plaintiff’s burden as general plot ideas are not protected by copyright law. After substantial review of the plot, characters, themes, setting, mood, pace, dialogue, and sequence of events of the two works, the court found no similarities and upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Funky Films is a reminder that satisfying the extrinsic test can be difficult and require substantial proof. The extrinsic test often requires analytical dissection of a work and expert testimony. In cases such as Funky Films the focus is not on basic plot ideas for the stories, but articulable similarities between protectable elements (e.g., not scenes a faire) of the two works.