The Second Circuit on Wednesday affirmed the dismissal of a suit by a writer claiming the producers of the ABC sitcom "Modern Family" stole his idea, finding no substantial similarity between the show and the plaintiff's pilot script.
The court found that Judge Paul A. Crotty of the Southern District of New York correctly dismissed the copyright suit by pro se plaintiff Martin Alexander, who claimed the creators of "Modern Family" used the plot, characters and other elements from a script he had pitched called "Loony Ben."
"The sparse and minor similarities between the allegedly infringing work — the television series 'Modern Family' — and the copyrighted work — the pilot treatment for the television series 'Loony Ben' — are insufficient to establish infringement," the Second Circuit ruled.
The premise of "Loony Ben" involves a character who suffers from various psychological ailments as he interacts with various members of his family, according to the complaint.
Alexander's complaint described "Loony Ben" as depicting "a large, nontraditional, dysfunctional, contemporary American family that includes individuals of various races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages and marital statuses."
That concept was stolen by the creators of "Modern Family," which takes place in the Los Angeles suburbs and features a large, diverse ensemble cast, Alexander claimed.
The Second Circuit ruled that "to the extent the works share a common concept, they do so only at the most general level."
"Specific overlapping character traits and plot aspects identified by Alexander reflect superficial and de minimis details, involve general abstractions insufficiently developed to merit protection, or are standard in the treatment of the given topic of modern family life, and are therefore unprotectable," the court ruled.
The court also rejected Alexander's request for sanctions on the defendants and their attorneys for what he described as litigation misconduct, finding his claims "wholly unsupported by the record or demonstrably false."
Alexander's suit named a slew of defendants, including ABC Inc., News Corp., the parent of "Modern Family" producer Twentieth Century Fox Television, show creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, and others, including Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.
Alexander wrote the script and treatment for "Loony Ben" in 2006 and pitched it to various media outlets, according to his complaint filed in 2010.
Judge Crotty granted the defendants' motion to dismiss in July 2011, after a magistrate judge found that "no reasonable jury could find the 'total concept and feel' of 'Modern Family'" was similar to that of "Loony Ben."
Second Circuit Judges Gerard E. Lynch and Raymond J. Lohier Jr. heard the appeal. The third member of the panel, Judge Jon O. Newman, recused himself before oral argument, so the two remaining members of the panel, who were in agreement, decided the case.
Alexander and a representative of ABC could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
Alexander represented himself.
The defendants are represented by Dale M. Cendali and Joshua L. Simmons of Kirkland & Ellis LLP.
The case is Alexander v. Murdoch et al., case number 11-4291, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.