Matt Damon Film ‘Elysium' Not Substantially Similar to Posted ‘Butterfly Driver' Screenplay

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By Anandashankar Mazumdar

Oct. 7 — The 2013 movie “Elysium” did not incorporate elements that were substantially similar to protectable elements of a screenplay written by a plaintiff in a copyright infringement proceeding, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled Oct. 3.

Granting summary judgment in favor of the movie's producers and writer/director Neill Blomkamp, the court also rejected the plaintiff's argument that evidence he posted his screenplay to the widely used Triggerstreet website was enough to establish that the producers and Blomkamp had access to it.

Screenplay's Dystopian Story

Steve K. W. Briggs of San Mateo, Calif., is a screenwriter and film director. In 2005, he sent copies of a screenplay, “Uberopolis: City of Light,” to family and friends and registered a version of it with the Writers Guild of America, before trying to market the screenplay to agents and film production companies.

In 2007, he posted a new version of this screenplay, retitled “Butterfly Driver,” to the Triggerstreet website.

“Butterfly Driver” told the story of a military hero in the year 2120 living in dystopian world who gets into conflict with the leader of Uberopolis in order to save his family.

In 2013, Tristar Pictures Inc. of Culver City, Calif., began distributing “Elysium,” a motion picture featuring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster that was written and directed by Blomkamp and produced by Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.

“Elysium” is set in the year 2154 and involves a conflict between people living on an overpopulated Earth and those living in luxury in a space station.

Briggs sued Blomkamp, Sony, Tristar, and other entities involved with the production of “Elysium,” alleging infringement of his copyright interest in “Butterfly Driver,” which he registered with the Copyright Office prior to filing his claim.

Access Not Established by Triggerstreet

The court rejected Briggs's argument that Blomkamp's access to “Butterfly Driver” could be established merely because of its presence on the Triggerstreet website.

Briggs had argued that Triggerstreet was a website for screenwriters and producers that had about 50,000 members in the period prior to the production of “Elysium,” and as a screenwriter and director, Blomkamp was likely aware of it.

However, the court said that this assertion was “entirely speculative” and unsupported by any evidence.

The court rejected Briggs's “chain of events” theory.

According to the court, Briggs “reiterates that he posted his screenplay on triggerstreet.com; that triggerstreet.com was based in Los Angeles; that the majority of triggerstreet.com members were ‘short filmmakers and screenwriters;' and that Blomkomp [sic] was a short film-maker who was ‘media savvy' and who was based in Los Angeles.”

These assertions “no more than suggest a bare possibility of access,” the court said, which was not enough to establish access for the purposes of summary judgment.

The court also rejected Briggs's allegation that Blomkamp had access to “Butterfly Drive” based on the claim that it “was so widely distributed.”

The assertions made by Briggs did not constitute evidence that the screenplay was widely distributed, the court said.

Claimed Features Not Protectable

Furthermore, turning to the question of substantial similarity, the court rejected all of the “plot features” put forth by Briggs as being evidence of similarity.

“In short, none of the ‘plot features' identified by plaintiff is similar in the two works, except at the highest level of abstraction,” the court said.

That level of abstraction did not constitute the level at which Briggs could claim any protectable expression.

The court also rejected Briggs's claims that characters in “Elysium” were substantially similar to those in his screenplay.

Furthermore, the court found significant differences in the settings of the two stories. Elysium in “Elysium” is a haven for the “super-rich,” which is off-limits to the population of Earth. “Butterfly Driver” is set in Uberopolis, which, by contrast, was not so exclusive.

“In order to establish similarity in settings, plaintiff must show that his screen play and the film ‘Elysium' express the settings similarly,” the court said. “However, plaintiff cannot do that, because the screenplay and the film share nothing more than the generic idea of a futuristic Earth and an orbiting space station.”

Turning to the question of themes, the court found that either the themes were dissimilar, were generic themes expressed differently, or were abstract concepts not protected under copyright law.

Finally, Briggs argued that “Elysium” had copied the “fast but not frenetic” mood or pace of his story. This “bare concept” was not protectable, the court said.

Finding neither access nor substantial similarity, the court granted summary judgment in the defendants' favor.

The court's decision was issued by Judge Phyllis Jean Hamilton. Briggs represented himself. Sony, Blomkamp and the other defendants were represented by Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert LLP, Santa Monica, Calif.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anandashankar Mazumdar in Washington at amazumdar@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tom Taylor at ttaylor@bna.com

Full text at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Briggs_v_Blomkamp_et_al_Docket_No_413cv04679_ND_Cal_Oct_08_2013_C.