A recent published opinion by the California Court of Appeal brought some welcome clarity to theft of idea law. These cases are based on a breach of implied contract rather than copyright infringement, which begs the question when an uncopyrightable “idea” is sufficiently concrete to support a claim. The absence of clear standards has provided plaintiffs with an opening to file theft of idea claims based on tenuous similarities. The Court of Appeal has narrowed this opening by borrowing from copyright law.

Theft-of-ideas law
Copyright: bonathos / 123RF Stock Photo

On Friday, April 22, 2016, the California Court of Appeal, following a request for publication submitted by the MPAA, agreed to publication of its March 25, 2016 opinion affirming summary judgment for defendants in Ryder v. Lightstorm Entertainment, Inc. __ Cal. App. 4th __, 2016 WL 1615574 (Cal. Ct. App. April 22, 2016).  Ryder involved breach of implied contract claims arising from allegations that ideas taken from plaintiff’s sci-fi short story and treatment “KRZ 2068” were used by defendants James Cameron and Lightstorm Entertainment in their hit film “Avatar.”

Utilizing an analytical framework borrowed from copyright law, the Court of Appeal in Ryder affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment for defendants on the grounds that “Avatar” and “KRZ 2068” were not substantially similar. The Court (a) applied a filtration analysis to weed out from the court’s evaluation of the works creative elements that the defendants had developed before being exposed to plaintiff’s work, and (b) analyzed the alleged “similarities” of the works based on the particular details of the ideas that they utilized, not based on generalized abstractions.  Further, the Court held that the same analysis of substantial similarity applied to both plaintiff’s express and implied-in-fact contract claims.

This relatively stringent test for substantial similarity in idea submission cases will make it more difficult for plaintiffs to prove idea theft, while providing far greater protection for successful creative artists and their production companies and distributors – whose works are actually in the marketplace – from bogus claims by would-be writers arising from tenuous similarities in abstract themes and generalities.