Second Circuit Finds No Copyright Infringement of Sit-Com Modern Family

In July of 2010, Martin Alexander filed suit for copyright infringement against several defendants in U.S. District Court (S.D.N.Y.) based upon allegations that defendants’ creation, distribution, production, and broadcasting of the nationally-acclaimed tv show, Modern Family, violated his rights under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq., and other state law claims.

Alexander alleged that the characters and plots from Modern Family were largely copied from the pilot episode (“Treatment”) of Alexander’s proposed television series entitled Loony Bin.  Specifically, Alexander focused upon alleged similarities from scenes depicting children’s birthday parties where things go wrong, coping with odd family issues and therapy sessions, as well as distinct character and physical traits between the two shows’ main characters.

Although the defendants conceded that Alexander held a valid copyright for Looney Bin and they had access to “Treatment,” the District Court dismissed Alexander’s Complaint upon the grounds that no “substantial similarity” existed between Modern Family and the protectable elements of Loony Bin.

On appeal to the Second Circuit, the Court of Appeals noted that “the appropriate inquiry is whether the copying of protectable elements ‘is quantitatively and qualitatively sufficient to support a finding of infringement.’”  Alexander v. Murdoch, No. 11-4291, slip op. at 3 (2d Cir. Nov. 14, 2012).  The Court of Appeals further acknowledged that application of the test, as applied to television shows, requires an examination of “the similarities in such aspects as the total concept and feel, theme, characters, plot, sequence, pace and setting.”  Id.

The Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of Alexander’s claims by determining that Loony Bin and Modern Family only shared concepts “at the most general level,” as the “specific overlapping character traits and plot aspects identified by Alexander reflect superficial and de minimus details . . .; involve general abstractions insufficiently developed to merit protection . . .; or are ‘standard[ ] in the treatment of [the] given topic’ of modern family life, and are therefore unprotectable scènes à faire.”  Id. at 3-4.

Authored by: Scott A. Meyer and John Sokatch.

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