In an idea submission case, where Plaintiff alleged that Defendants fraudulently expressed interest in developing Plaintiff’s science fiction story only to use parts of that story in the hit 2009 film “Avatar,” the California Court of Appeal recently affirmed summary judgment in favor of Defendants, dismissing all claims.  In particular, the court found that there was no substantial similarity between the projects and that Plaintiff was unable to prove that Defendants used any of Plaintiff’s ideas in the film.

Between 1996 and 1998, the plaintiff, Eric Ryder, wrote a science fiction short story entitled “KRZ 2068” and began to distribute the story along with a proposal containing language that required the recipient to agree that the material would remain confidential, that the recipient could not copy any “KRZ” material “in whole or in part,” and that it would not be used for any purpose other than that for which it was intended.  After the parties met six times in 2001, the production company passed on Plaintiff’s story, and Plaintiff was unable to sell the story to other production companies.  In 2009, the movie “Avatar” was released.  Plaintiff filed suit in 2011, claiming that Defendants used his ideas in the movie.

In the suit, Plaintiff alleged claims for (1) breach of fiduciary duty; (2) breach of express contract; (3) breach of implied contract; (4) promissory fraud; (5) fraud and deceit; and (6) negligent misrepresentation.   In their motion for summary judgment, Defendants claimed to have conceived of “Avatar” before Plaintiff, that Plaintiff could not prove that the projects were substantially similar, and that the alleged joint venture and contractual relationship never existed.  The trial court agreed and dismissed the complaint, finding there was undisputed evidence that Defendants did not steal ideas to create the film.

In its de novo review of the trial court’s order, the appellate court affirmed.  As the Court of Appeal outlines in its opinion, Defendants first conceived of the “Avatar” story in 1995 and recorded details of this story in a 102-page script that was circulated around Hollywood.  As a result, a number of allegedly similar elements between the two works were disregarded as those elements could not have been used from Plaintiff’s materials, which were created later.  Further, as to the new ideas that were allegedly added to “Avatar,” the court reviewed each of the alleged similarities, comparing the elements of both “Avatar” and “KRZ,” and found that there was no substantial similarity between the two works on any of the claimed elements.  As to Plaintiff’s proposal that prohibited the recipient from copying any of the “KRZ” material “in whole or in part,” the court found that the “in part” language does not mean that Defendants could not use any part of the “KRZ” material, “no matter how trivial or minor.”  Rather, the court utilized the analysis of “substantial similarity” applicable to copyright cases.    Again, Plaintiff was unable to meet his burden of demonstrating the elements of “Avatar” were substantially similar to the ideas in the “KRZ” story.

The lessons to be learned here are that (1) having documented evidence demonstrating the date of creation will aid in defending a challenge from a secondary creator, and (2) the substantial similarity test is the analysis that will be utilized to determine if there is a “copying.”