On May 13, 2019, U.S. District Judge Consuelo Bland Marshall granted Disney's motion to dismiss copyright infringement claims brought by screenwriters Lee Alfred II (“Alfred”) and Ezequiel Martinez Jr. (“Martinez”) with respect to Disney's “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
“Treasure maps, skeletons and mutinies are par for the course in pirate movies,” Judge Marshall explained, “there is little in common between the spec script by Lee Alfred II and Ezequiel Martinez Jr. and the massive Disney film franchise.” Judge Marshall further added, “What things it does have in common are just staples of the pirate genre…and even if they weren't, Alfred and Martinez acknowledge that they derived their concept from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney's theme parks.”
Judge Marshall went on to add, “The idea of cursed pirates is scenes-a-faire and unprotectable…Even if such an idea could be protectable, the complaint alleges that the screenplay incorporated ‘the basic elements of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.' The Disney theme park rides on which the screenplay is based feature skeletal pirates who speak, steer ships, and find treasure.”
Alfred and Martinez, and their producer Tova Laiter, claimed in their November 2017 complaint that they were brought on by Disney-affiliated companies to work on a script called “Red Hood” and that while they were working with that creative team, the recent film school graduates came up with a screenplay called “Pirates of the Spanish Main.”
Realizing that the Pirates of the Caribbean ride the Disney theme park did not have an affiliated movie, they changed the title to “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the trio claimed in their complaint.
They then went to Disney and handed over a copy of their screenplay in August 2000, and found out later that Disney was passing on the project because there were children in the screenplay, according to the complaint.
Disney filed a motion to dismiss the suit in November of 2018, and on May 13, 2019, Judge Marshall granted that motion.
Judge Marshall rejected the trio's argument that their main character, Davey Jones, was substantially similar to the iconic Johnny Depp character Jack Sparrow. “Cockiness, bravery, and drunkenness are generic, non-distinct characteristics which are not protectable.” Judge Marshall further added, “they're not even that similar- noting that Jones is a ‘dashing young rogue', clean-shaven, with his hair pinned back in a tail while Sparrow is dirty, with facial hair, and dreadlocks. Jones gives up on piracy, pursuing love and deciding to raise children while Sparrow has no love interest, doesn't care about children, and remains a pirate throughout the films.”
Judge Marshall explained, “While the court notes a few instances of similar dialogue based on its objective review of the works, such dialogue appears in different contexts, are made by different characters, and/or are unoriginal because they are identical or substantially similar to portions of the theme song from Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean theme park ride…The mood of the film series is much darker than the screenplay- noting that the films contain sword fights, execution scenes, and violence- while the screenplay has a band of “Rascal Scoundrels” who provide slapstick comedy.”
The screenwriters were represented by Avery Tam of the Law Office of James Tam.
The defendants were represented by Jordan D. Segall and Melinda E. Lemoine of Munger Tolles and Olson LLP.
The case is Arthur Lee Alfred et al v. Walt Disney Company, The et al, case number 2:18-cv-08074, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
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