Did the movie STOMP THE YARD infringe upon the movie STEPPIN'S copyright? Cases of Interest >  IP Cases of Interest >  IP >  Copyright

Clements v. Screen Gems, Inc.

This case was decided nine days ago.* Brief authored by Keith O’Connor for IP class
Clements v. Screen Gems, Inc.

Clements v. Screen Gems, Inc., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 132186 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 13, 2010)

This is a motion filed by the defendant Screen Gems, Inc’ for summary judgment to dismiss Clements’ claim of copyright infringement. Clements alleges that substantial protectable expression in their film “STEPPIN” was infringed by Defendant's film “STOMP THE YARD.”

A version of “STEPPIN” was shown, in part, to Defendant's President, Clint Culpepper, on September 8, 2005. That viewing is the only piece of evidence that the defendant had access to STEPPIN. Screen Gems provided evidence that they were already working on a similar movie before ever being made aware of the film STEPPIN. More than a year prior to Culpepper's viewing of a portion of STEPPIN on September 8, 2005, the creator of YARD — Rainforest Films, an Atlanta-based film production and distribution company, and its executive, Will Packer — had: Purchased (in February 2004) the rights to a project entitled "Step Show." Additionally, the studio authorized a screenwriter named Anderson (a few weeks after June 18, 2004) to write a treatment for Rainforest's "Step Show" project that would also include elements from Anderson's "The Rush" screenplay which was written by Anderson in June 2004. Screen Gems received a draft from Anderson for the "Step Show" project. ELEMENTS: The treatment focused on “a troubled youth from Los Angeles who moves to Atlanta to attend a black college and join a fraternity, falls for the daughter of the college's provost, a girl who is the girlfriend of a fraternity member, and, after winning over the girl, participates in a "steppin" competition for the National Step Championships. All of these elements were maintained and appear in the final STOMP THE YARD film.” Additionally, it was determined that “at no time were any of the persons involved in the creative process of creating and developing YARD during the 19 month period from February 2004 and August 2005 provided access of any kind to STEPPIN.”

HOLDING: The court found that “while the films STEPPIN and YARD bear some generic "similarities"—for example, each takes place at a fictional historical black college, involves a male lead character who joins a fraternity and is a talented dancer who falls in love with a female character, and both movies culminate in a dance competition where the underdog beats its rival, the defending champion—such similarities are not evidence of "copying" and fall far short of satisfying the objective "substantial similarity of protectible expression" standard required under application of the Ninth Circuit's extrinsic test, which analyzes each work's plot, sequence of events, characters and character relationships, settings, themes, mood, tone, pace and dialogue.” The court filtered out the unprotected elements and found that the two films are not “substantially similar in their protectible expression under the extrinsic test. Further, "random similarities scattered throughout the works" will not defeat Defendant's summary judgment. Kouf, 16 F.3d at 1045-46. The bottom line was that STOMP THE YARD screenwriters had written multiple drafts of the STOMP THE YARD screenplay containing the basic elements on which Plaintiff rests his present action before Culpepper ever saw parts of the film STEPPIN. The court found that "substantial independent creation of STOMP THE YARD commenced well prior to Defendant's alleged partial access to STEPPIN.” For those reasons, the court granted Screen Gems motion for summary judgment.

This case is similar to the case of Abbie’s Irish Rose v. The Cohen’s and the Kelly’s. I was a little surprised that the court granted motion for summary judgment because it seemed that there could have been copying here. Although no text was directly copied, it seemed that specific character elements and specific characters and scenes were substantially similar to one another. Furthermore, subplots, plot outline, and the story’s main idea are almost identical (although these three elements carry less weight when determining copying that specific character elements and scenes.) I think that the court may have given Culpepper the benefit of the doubt because Anderson had already been working on a screenplay with similar elements prior to his viewing of STEPPIN. That being said, the final product was completed after Culpepper’s viewing of STEPPIN so he may have copied some of its elements by incorporating specific characters and scenes into the final STOMP THE YARD product. From a policy standpoint, the court made it clear that the burden of proof was on Clements. The court wanted to make sure that Clements did not have a monopoly on a story in which a young black student goes off to college, joins a “steppin” fraternity, falls in love, and climaxes with the protagonist beating his “steppin” rival.

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