Court Quickly Dismisses Copyright Suit Against Comedy Central Over Non-Protectable Elements


from the c-worthy dept

The idea/expression dichotomy strikes again! There is a misconception among some as to how copyright works, specifically in terms of what is protected under copyright and what is not. This has been distilled down to the afore-mentioned dichotomy, where general ideas do not enjoy the protection of copyright, whereas specific expressions do. So, an anthropomorphic mouse-hero that wears a cape and can fly is an idea that is not protectable, while the specific depiction of Mighty Mouse (just to age myself) is protectable.

I don’t expect every member of the public, nor even every content creator out there to know this sort of thing. I do, however, expect the lawyers they contact in an attempt to file loser lawsuits to know it. Sadly, these suits make their way into the courts far too often and are nearly as often dismissed on summary judgement. Such seems to be the case with Daniel Kassel’s lawsuit against Comedy Central over two works that feature a talking manatee that has life problems and a human girlfriend.

The work at the center of the lawsuit is Happily Everglades After, a storyboard animatic posted to YouTube by author Daniel Kassel. The work, originally titled Jukebox Manatee, tells the story a manatee protagonist with a laid-back attitude and a human girlfriend who, in the words of the complaint “suffers misfortunes as a commentary on life and its travails with irony and black humor.” The author finalized the work, after “brainstorming” with fellow students in the Pratt Institute, in 2018.

But the author did not take a laid-back approach to the release of Loafy, a one-season adult animated comedy premiering on the Comedy Central digital platforms in August 2020. The show, created by former Saturday Night Live cast member Bobby Moynihan and made by production company Cartuna, is (according to its publicity materials) “a semi-improvised animated series about a weed-dealing manatee who spends his days getting high and lazing around his tank at the Central Park Zoo.” Kevin Smith, Jason Mewes, Gina Gershon, and Tom Green, among others, provide voiceovers for the series.

As the court noted in its ruling in favor of the defense on summary judgement, some of those specific elements and many, many more are at the heart of why this failed as a matter of copyright infringement. I imagine that part of the reason this action was brought in the first place is that a couple of people that worked on Loafy at Cartuna were classmates of Kassel earlier in life. Perhaps he thought that created some link or served as further evidence of infringement. Comedy Central didn’t even bother suggesting that it or the production company never had access to Kassel’s work, in fact.

But as the court went on to say, and I paraphrase: so fucking what? The characters in Kassel’s complaint are not described in protectable elements, the court ruled. A talking manatee with a human girlfriend that talks about his life? That’s an idea, not a specific expression. Hell, Kassel’s work is a four minute cartoon short, whereas Loafy is an episodic series. They’re substantially different in terms of length, themes, and specific expression in a number of ways, up to and including the very nature and length of each work.

And even if the author’s manatee character were unique enough to be protectable, the court found, the “total concept and feel of the two works” was not substantially similar in any event. The original animated short was a four-minute work drawn in stop-motion animation, set in the Everglades, featuring a manatee character who “appears optimistic despite being run over and physically scarred by humans in a boat.” The Comedy Central work was an eight-part animated series, set in a dilapidated zoo near Central Park, featuring “a foul-mouthed and crude drug dealer” whose humor was “designed to leave the viewer laughing.” These and other differences in concept and feel made the author’s claim implausible even on the pleadings.

Kassel brought two other claims, one for unfair competition and another for deceptive acts and practices. The court hand-waved away both. The unfair competition claim failed because it was, again, about ideas and concepts, rather than a specific “tangible good.” The deceptive practices claim failed as well, basically because it essentially reiterated the claim of copyright infringement.

And so this lawsuit goes in the waste bin, wasting the time of everyone involved and, presumably, some money that Kassel would have spent on his lawyers. Lawyers who really should either be giving their client better advice on claims like this, or refusing to take such loser cases on.

Filed Under: copyright, daniel kassel, idea expression dichotomy, jukebox manatee, loafy

Companies: comedy central

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