Murphy v. Murphy, No. 04 C 3496, 2007 WL 551576 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 15, 2007) (Darrah, J.).
Judge Darrah granted defendants summary judgment of noninfringement of plaintiff’s copyright. Plaintiff, a documentary filmmaker, filmed several residents of Chicago Housing Authority Projects. Plaintiff copyrighted his documentary film and, in early 1998, sent it to Oprah Winfrey at Harpo Productions. He requested that Winfrey and Harpo air his documentary on the Oprah Winfrey Show and that they forward it to a list of people in the film industry, several of whom are named defendants. Winfrey never responded to plaintiff and his documentary was never aired on her show. Shortly thereafter, defendants’ animated program, “The PJs” – telling the story of several fictional characters living in an urban housing project – aired on the Fox network. Plaintiff alleged that the defendants collectively infringed his copyrighted documentary by using scenes from it, as well as unique features of several of plaintiff’s subjects to make their characters.
The Court granted summary judgment for defendants for several reasons. First, after reviewing the evidence, including a comparison of clips from each work, the Court held that no reasonable jury could find that plaintiff’s documentary is substantially similar to The PJs. Plaintiff’s movie is a series of interviews of people, while The PJs is an animated program telling fictional stories using fictional characters. And to the extent that any similarities existed, they were in non-copyrightable elements of the video. For example, the Court noted that plaintiff could not hold a copyright in someone else’s appearance or how a building looks.
Second, plaintiff had not established that defendants had access to plaintiff’s film. Plaintiff only provided his film to Winfrey via Harpo Studios and plaintiff provided no evidence that she or anyone at Harpo had sent the film to any third party. Additionally, Harpo Studios never aired the film and plaintiff could not even provide any evidence proving that Winfrey or Harpo Studios had actually received the film.
Third, defendants presented uncontradicted evidence that they conceived of the characters and concept of The PJs before plaintiff sent his film to Winfrey and Harpo Studios. While The PJs began airing on Fox in 1999, defendants submitted evidence that they had drafted characters and plots for The PJs by December 1997.