Pattishall IP Blog

April 27, 2012

Hey Ya! District Court Dismisses Copyright Lawsuit Against André 3000’s “Class of 3000″

Filed under: Copyright, Litigation — Tags: , , — Pattishall, McAuliffe, Newbury, Hilliard & Geraldson LLP @ 3:40 pm

by Seth I. Appel, Trademark Attorney

In 1997, Timothy McGee pitched an animated TV series, “The Music Factory of the 90’s,” to The Cartoon Network.  McGee’s show, set in Atlanta, centered on Tony “The Play Maker” Rich, a wealthy corporate attorney who leaves his law firm to become a music producer.  The show would feature animated versions of well-known guest musicians.  Each episode would include a musical performance, and at the end of the episode the guests would appear in their live-action state.  The show would deal with serious issues such as racism and violence, and it aimed to teach viewers lessons about the music industry and life.  The Cartoon Network rejected “The Music Factory of the 90’s” because it did not meet the network’s programming needs at the time.

Nearly ten years later, The Cartoon Network debuted “Class of 3000,” an animated series co-created and co-produced by Andre “Andre 3000″ Benjamin, best known as one-half of the hip-hop duo Outkast.  This show was also set in Atlanta.  It focused on Sunny Bridges, a musical superstar who returned to Atlanta to teach, and his students at a performing arts school.  Sunny displayed supernatural abilities and lived in a magical house in the woods.  Benjamin provided the voice of Sunny, and each episode included his original music.  According to the complaint, “Class of 3000″ taught viewers lessons, and the plan was for animated versions of real artists to appear on the show.

In May 2008, “Class of 3000″ concluded its second and final season.  Shortly following, McGee brought suit against Benjamin, The Cartoon Network, and its parent company, Turner Broadcasting Systems, Inc., alleging copyright infringement and other claims.

The court granted the motion to dismiss of The Cartoon Network and TBS, the only defendants that McGee served, because McGee was unable to show probative similarity between “The Music Factory of the 90’s” and “Class of 3000.”  McGee v. Benjamin 3000, 102 U.S.P.Q.2d 1299 (D. Mass. March 20, 2012).

To demonstrate copyright infringement a plaintiff must establish (1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original.  There was no dispute McGee satisfied the first element.  He owned a copyright registration for a treatment of “The Music Factory of the 90’s” and related materials.  However, McGee could not demonstrate actionable copying.

In the First Circuit, establishing copying involves two steps.  First, the plaintiff must show that the defendant “actually copied the work as a factual matter,” either through direct evidence or through indirect evidence of access and probative similarity.  In comparing the works to determine similarity, only protectible elements are relevant; the court must ignore “unprotected ideas or unoriginal expressions.”  Second, if court finds probative similarity, then it considers substantial similarity.  “Two works are substantially similar if a reasonable, ordinary observer, upon examination of the two works would conclude that the defendant unlawfully appropriate the plaintiff’s protectable expression.”

The court found McGee’s claims insufficient with respect to probative similarity.  McGee’s vague references to similarities in “location, characters, content, format, and dramatis personnae” were not enough.  The only specific similarities, the court explained, were that both shows take place in Atlanta; both shows involve the music industry; and both shows involve a character who left his job to try something new.  But McGee does not have the exclusive right to any of these elements.

McGee’s argument regarding probative similarity runs up against several hurdles often encountered by those who seek to enforce a copyright in a treatment for a television show, movie, or theatrical performance. Most notably, there are very few elements of the Music Factory treatment that are original; most of the alleged similarities are noncopyrightable “basic concepts and ideas” or “stock scenes and characters.”

Because ideas are not protected by copyright, whether or not the defendants copied McGee’s ideas was irrelevant.  Further, under the scenes a faire doctrine, copyright generally does not protect “plots, subplots or themes” insofar as they are “for all practical purposes indispensable, or at least customary, in the treatment of a given subject matter.”  For example, “the plot device of a protagonist leaving one profession to embark on an unrelated profession with little experience but considerable passion is a familiar one.”

Likewise, copyright does not protect stock characters.  The court found that several characters in the parties’ shows, such as young musicians and a tough executive, were largely stock characters.  Meanwhile, the shows’ main characters – Sunny and The Play Maker – were “in certain fundamental senses … almost polar opposites.”

Therefore, McGee’s copyright claim failed based on the absence of probative similarity.  The court added that McGee also could not establish substantial similarity.  In that regard, it pointed to additional differences in “format and tone,” and added that the themes of the two shows were in conflict.  While “The Music Factory of the 90’s” celebrated the pursuit of money and fame, “Class of 3000″ emphasized the love of music and creativity.

McGee reflects the difficulty in establishing copying infringement in this context.  Copyright owners must beware that basic concepts and ideas are not protectable, nor are routine storylines or stock characters.  Superficial similarities between creative works are often not actionable.

Seth I. Appel is an associate attorney at Pattishall, McAuliffe, Newbury, Hilliard & Geraldson LLP, a leading intellectual property law firm based in Chicago, Illinois.  Pattishall McAuliffe represents both plaintiffs and defendants in trademark, copyright, and unfair competition trials and appeals, and advises its clients on a broad range of domestic and international intellectual property matters, including brand protection, Internet, and e-commerce issues.  Mr. Appel’s practice focuses on litigation, transactions, and counseling with respect to trademark, trade dress, copyright and Internet law.

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January 13, 2012

False Advertising Claim Over Statements In Billing Letter To Patients Not Sufficiently Pled Under Lanham Act

Filed under: Advertising, Litigation — Tags: , , — Pattishall, McAuliffe, Newbury, Hilliard & Geraldson LLP @ 2:24 pm

by Phillip Barengolts, Trademark Attorney

Ameritox is “the nation’s leader in pain medication monitoring, offering urine drug testing services to help physicians assess medication adherence of patients on chronic opioid therapy.”  Millennium Laboratories is “a national, research-based medication monitoring company whose test offering, technology, customer support, educational resources and experts are specifically focused on clinicians who treat chronic pain.”  Essentially, the companies are urine testing labs that compete in the market for monitoring drug levels in patients who complain of chronic pain because such drugs are very susceptible to abuse.  Ameritox sued Millennium over an alleged scheme to provide improper inducements to physicians to use Millennium’s testing services over those of other companies.  The claims included false advertising under the Lanham Act and a related claim of common law unfair competition.[1]  Millennium moved to dismiss these claims and prevailed (with leave to amend). See Ameritox Ltd. v. Millennium Laboratories, Inc., 8:11-cv-775 (M.D. Fla. Jan. 6, 2012).[2]

As part of this alleged scheme, Ameritox claimed that Millennium provided an “advertisement” to its physician customers that informed patients that they would not be responsible for any additional charges beyond those billed to the patients’ insurance companies or Medicare.  The court identified this “advertisement” as a billing letter, i.e., the letter a patient receives that shows the amounts charged, covered by insurance/Medicare, and owed by the patient.  Ameritox asserted that this letter was misleading because “patients enrolled in Medicare, by law, are not subject to any deductible or co-payments for clinical laboratory services, thus any benefit to a Medicare patient is, in fact illusory.”  It was this letter primarily at issue under the Lanham Act and common law unfair competition claims.

Millennium argued that the letter was not “commercial advertising or promotion,” as required under 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a), because it was sent to patients while the relevant consumers were physicians.  Ameritox countered that: a) the letter was distributed both to patients and physicians; and b) patients also were potential customers.  The court rejected Ameritox’s argument because Ameritox “failed to allege that the Millennium Billing Letter was sufficiently disseminated to the relevant purchasing public.”  Specifically, the court noted that Ameritox’s amended complaint was not clear about who actually was the relevant purchasing public and “how many consumers in the relevant purchasing public Millennium contacted.”[3]

The Court found Ameritox’s factual allegations that the letter was misleading to be sufficient, but at the same time Ameritox had not plausibly pled that the billing letter was likely to deceive potential customers.  The Court did not explain these seemingly contradictory findings beyond stating that Ameritox’s allegation that “Millennium’s statements are…likely to deceive a substantial portion of the targeted customers,” was nothing more than a naked assertion devoid of further factual enhancement – the type of pleading prohibited by the Supreme Court’s decisions in Iqbal and Tombly.  It is not clear what factual enhancement the Court would accept as sufficient to support an allegation of likelihood of deception.  Professor Tushnet wonders whether Ameritox may have to plead that it has a survey in hand. See http://tushnet.blogspot.com/2012/01/pleading-standard-dooms-misleadingness.html.  It seems to this author that explaining how an advertisement is misleading usually would be sufficient to underpin how it is likely to deceive potential consumers.  For example, here (assuming what Ameritox states turns out to be true, as one must on a motion to dismiss), it seems that Ameritox is claiming that patient-consumers are likely to be deceived into believing they are receiving a benefit by having their tests conducted by Millennium because of Millennium’s statements about patients not having to make co-pays, etc.  Perhaps Ameritox needs to be explicit on this point when it amends its complaint, even if such pleading seems above and beyond the notice pleading required by the Federal Rules.

Finally, the Court found insufficient to plead materiality to the purchasing decision Ameritox’s allegation that “Millennium’s false or misleading statements have already, and will continue to, influence materially purchasing decisions to the extent that customers choose Millennium’s services instead of those offered by Ameritox.”  This author sees a pretty direct connection between conveying to a consumer that they don’t have to pay as much when using one company’s service over a competitor’s and the likelihood that the consumer will go with the cheaper provider (essentially, Ameritox alleges that Millennium’s statements convey this type of message).  That is, deception over a price difference seems very material to a consumer’s purchase decision, but maybe that’s just me.  Again, the court may be looking for Ameritox to be more explicit when it re-pleads, but it provided no guidance.

Ultimately, this Court appears to have taken a strict view of the requirements enunciated in Iqbal/Twombly regarding facts that must be pled to support allegations of false advertising under the Lanham Act.  Ameritox was given leave to amend, so we anticipate more specific allegations in the amended complaint.  This decision underscores the need for plaintiffs to be explicit about the impact of an allegedly false advertisement on the target consumers which likely will require more pre-complaint investigation and analysis, as well as artful pleading.  Whether other courts follow this precedent remains to be seen.

*          *          *

Phillip Barengolts is a partner with Pattishall, McAuliffe, Newbury, Hilliard & Geraldson LLP, a leading intellectual property law firm based in Chicago, Illinois.  Pattishall McAuliffe represents both plaintiffs and defendants in trademark, copyright, and unfair competition trials and appeals, and advises its clients on a broad range of domestic and international intellectual property matters, including brand protection, Internet, and e-commerce issues.  Mr. Barengolts’ practice focuses on litigation, transactions, and counseling in domestic and international trademark, trade dress, Internet, and copyright law.  He teaches trademark and copyright litigation at John Marshall Law School, and co-authored Trademark and Copyright Litigation, published by Oxford University Press.


[footnotes]

[1] Ameritox also asserted claims under the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act that are not at issue here.

[3] According to the opinion, Ameritox alleged only that “Millennium’s services are offered, advertised, and sold to customers throughout the country.”

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