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Kullberg and Landon v. Pure Flix Entertainment or Rise and God is not dead screenplays are different original works

Plaintiffs asserted that Defendants infringed Plaintiffs’ exclusive rights in their copyright to Plaintiffs’ Rise screenplay, in violation of Title 17 U.S.C. § 106, by preparing unauthorized derivative works, namely Defendants’ God’s Not Dead (“GND”) screenplay and motion picture. Plaintiffs alleged that as a result of Defendants’ copyright infringement, Plaintiffs were prevented from making the Rise film and each receiving their 50% interests.

Plaintiffs’ ownership of the copyright is not disputed. Defendants did not dispute access. Plaintiffs asserted that the works’ plots and sequences of events are substantially similar. The Court disagreed. While both Rise and GND share the general premise of an atheist professor challenging a Christian student’s religious beliefs, the two works tell materially different stories.

Rise, at base, is a story, spanning a four-year time period, about a young Christian woman who attends college and undergoes a transformation into a person “harder” and “sexier” before reconnecting with her religion and her earlier self. GND, on the other hand, is a story, spanning a two-week time period, primarily about a Christian college student who, on the first day of his freshman year, is challenged by his atheist philosophy professor to convince his classmates that God is not dead.

While at a very high level of generality Rise and GND share certain plot similarities, “general plot ideas are not protected by copyright law; they remain forever the common property of artistic mankind.” The similarities identified by Plaintiffs are ones arising merely from the works’ general shared premise and scenes-a-faire – such similarities are unprotected by copyright.

Plaintiffs’ overly broad examination of the two works does not merit a different conclusion. Moreover, Rise contains highly controversial themes, such as sexuality and adultery, which are completely absent from GND. Consequently, Rise also exhibits a more serious mood throughout.

The lack of substantial similarities between the two works is best illustrated by an analysis of the works’ main characters: (1) Emma and Josh; and (2) Professor Hawkins and Professor Radisson. While Plaintiffs pointed to various similarities between the two sets of characters, there exist only a few similarities that have significance under copyright law – most similarities identified by Plaintiffs are either generic character traits or traits that flow naturally from the works’ shared premise.

First, Plaintiffs failed to establish that Emma and Josh share significant similarities under copyright law. Both characters are Christian students whose religious beliefs are challenged by an atheist professor – this similarity unequivocally flows naturally from the works’ shared premise.Plaintiffs further contended that both characters are “devout,” “kind,” “loyal,” “free-thinking,” “courageous,” “bright and studious, and demonstrate a command and appreciation of the powers of logic and reason.” However, to the extent any of these similarities are significant under copyright law; they too flow naturally from the works’ shared premise.

In fact, the works’ depiction of these characters is strikingly different. Emma goes through a personal transformation throughout Rise. She leaves her family’s farm and arrives at Harvard as a devout Christian woman. During her freshman year, a fellow student takes advantage of her sexually after a night she had too much to drink. When the story flashes forward two years, Emma is “harder, sexier, wearing make-up, and [is] barely recognizable.” She then temporarily has an inappropriate relationship with Hawkins. Subsequently, after spending time at The Ark and preparing for the debates against Hawkins, she reconnects with her religious beliefs and the person she was prior to attending Harvard. No such transformation occurs with Josh whose character consistently remains the same throughout GND.

Second, Plaintiffs likewise failed to establish that Hawkins and Radisson share significant similarities under copyright law. Other than the fact that both Hawkins and Radisson are atheist professors – unprotected traits that flow naturally from the works’ shared premise – the two characters share no other significant similarities. In Rise, Hawkins is famous and is frequently described as being charming. Additionally, Hawkins is an adulterer, best demonstrated by his pursuit of Emma despite being married. None of these character traits apply to Radisson.

Because Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that the works are substantially similar, no basis exists for their claim of copyright infringement.