TANIKUMI v. THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge William J. Martini on 4/1/15. (gh, )
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
Civ. No. 14-5877
THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY, et al.,
WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.
On February 19, 2015, this Court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss,
which was seemingly unopposed. Plaintiff pro se promptly presented the Court
with a February 6, 2015 stipulation that had given Plaintiff more time to file an
opposition. According to Plaintiff, Defendants had represented that they would
present the stipulation to the Court, but the stipulation was not filed before the
hearing date, and judgment was entered in Defendants’ favor without considering
any opposing arguments.
On March 18, 2015, Plaintiff filed what would have been her opposition to
Defendants’ motion to dismiss. The Court will treat the opposition as a motion to
vacate judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b). Rule 60(b)
On motion and upon such terms as are just, the court may
relieve a party . . . from a final judgment, order, or proceeding
for the following reasons: (1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or
excusable neglect; (2) newly discovered evidence that, with
reasonable diligence, could not have been discovered in time to
move for a new trial under Rule 59(b); (3) fraud (whether
previously called intrinsic or extrinsic), misrepresentation, or
misconduct by an opposing party; (4) the judgment is void;
(5) the judgment has been satisfied, released or discharged; it is
based on an earlier judgment that has been reversed or vacated;
or applying it prospectively is no longer equitable; or (6) any
other reason that justifies relief.
The remedy provided under Rule 60(b) is “extraordinary, and [only] special
circumstances may justify granting relief under it.” Moolenaar v. Gov’t of the
Virgin Islands, 822 F.2d 1342, 1346 (3d Cir. 1987). In fact, relief under Rule
60(b) is available only under such circumstances that the “overriding interest in the
finality and repose of judgments may properly be overcome.” Harris v. Martin,
834 F.2d 361, 364 (3d Cir. 1987). Rule 60(b) is not a substitute for an appeal, and
legal error, without more, does not warrant relief under this rule. Smith v. Evans,
853 F.2d 155, 158 (3d Cir. 1988).
The circumstances here are special to the extent that Plaintiff should have
legitimately had the opportunity to have been heard. Therefore, the Court
considers her arguments. Nevertheless, her motion is denied because her
arguments against dismissal are not persuasive. Therefore, relief from judgment is
Plaintiff argues that the issue of substantial similarity between her book and
the movie Frozen is one for a jury to determine. Not so. A court may decide
substantial similarity as a matter of law on a motion to dismiss. See Winstead v.
Jackson, 509 F. App’x 139, 143 (3d Cir. 2013). See also Peter F. Gaito
Architecture, LLC v. Simone Dev. Corp., 602 F.3d 57, 64 (2d Cir. 2010) (“When a
court is called upon to consider whether the works are substantially similar, no
discovery or fact-finding is typically necessary, because what is required is only a
visual comparison of the works.”). The Court has thoroughly examined
Tanikumi’s work and Disney’s movie. See Pension Ben. Guar. Corp. v. White
Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993) (“[A] court may consider
an undisputedly authentic document that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to a
motion to dismiss if the plaintiff’s claims are based on the document.”); see also
Winstead, 509 F. App’x at 143 (“[W]here the works in question have been
submitted by the parties and are authentic, it is proper for the District Court to
consider the similarity between those works in connection with a motion to
dismiss.”). A district court may determine noninfringement as a matter of law
either “because the similarity between two works concerns only non-copyrightable
elements of the plaintiff’s work” or because “no reasonable jury, properly
instructed, could find that the two works are substantially similar.”
Scholastic, Inc., 739 F. Supp. 2d 642, 655 (S.D.N.Y. 2011).
Second, Plaintiff argues that there are hundreds of similarities between her
book and the movie Frozen. She lists the similarities extensively. Nevertheless,
the similarities are merely thematic: a childhood injury caused by an older sister,
shame and concealment of a quality that makes the protagonist different from other
people, a mountain location, an intense sisterly bond, an untrue lover, and a
resolution in which the female protagonist comes into her own without the help of
a man. But the way in which the two works express these themes is entirely
different. Copyright law protects expression, not ideas themselves. Kay Berry,
Inc. v. Taylor Gifts, Inc., 421 F.3d 199, 208 (3d Cir. 2005). See also Winstead v.
Jackson, No. CIV.A.10-5783 SRC, 2011 WL 4407450, at *2 (D.N.J. Sept. 20,
2011) aff’d, 509 F. App’x 139 (3d Cir. 2013) (“[G]eneral plot ideas and themes lie
in the public domain and are not protected by copyright law.”).
Copyright law does not protect Tanikumi’s themes, and the way that Frozen
expresses the common themes is entirely too different for any lay person to see
improper appropriation. See Kay Berry, Inc. v. Taylor Gifts, Inc., 421 F.3d 199,
208 (3d Cir. 2005) (noting that the test of what constitutes an “improper
appropriation” is “the response of the ordinary lay person” to the two works). It
was therefore appropriate to dismiss the case at the motion to dismiss phase.
For these reasons, Plaintiff’s Motion to Vacate Judgment is denied. An
appropriate order follows.
/s/ William J. Martini
WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.
Date: April 1, 2015
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