Tillman v. New Line Cinema Corp., No. 05 C 910, Slip Op. (N.D. Ill. Mar. 7, 2008).*
Judge Kennelly dismissed plaintiff’s copyright infringement claims holding that: (1) defendants’ allegedly infringing movie, “John Q,” was created before plaintiff’s copyrighted screenplay; (2) defendants did not have access to plaintiff’s screenplay when John Q was created; and (3) John Q was not substantially similar to plaintiff’s screenplay. Plaintiff wrote his screenplay in 1998. But defendants produced news articles and affidavits supporting the fact that their screenplay was written in 1993, including documents proving the John Q screenplay was registered with the Writers’ Guild in 1993. Plaintiff argued that defendants’ evidence was fabricated, but submitted no substantive evidence of fabrication.
The Court also held that there was no evidence that defendants’ writer had access to plaintiff’s screen play when John Q was written. First, the evidence proved that John Q was written before plaintiff’s screenplay. Furthermore, plaintiff admitted in response to a request for admission that he had not identified any witness confirming that John Q’s author had access to plaintiff’s screenplay. And while plaintiff filed his screenplay with the Writers’ Guild, the Writers’ Guild had strict regulations that would have prevented anyone from accessing plaintiff’s screenplay, and plaintiff offered no evidence proving the Writers’ Guild’s regulations had been violated.
Finally, the Court held that the two works were not substantially similar. Many of the alleged similarities were unprotectable. Scenes of parents of a sick child sitting in a hospital waiting room, filling out hospital paperwork, praying at their child’s bed, and playing with or reading to their child were all unprotectable scènes à faire.
Finally, “the plots and moods of the two works [were] completely dissimilar.” John Q is a hostage drama in which a working-class father of a sick child takes hostages at a hospital in an effort to get his son the heart transplant the father cannot pay for. In plaintiff’s screenplay, a wealthy father who loses his health insurance and has his assets frozen, kills himself so that his life insurance proceeds can be used to pay for his daughter’s heart surgery.