ALEXANDER v. HALEY Nos. 77 Civ. 1907 (M.E.F.), 77 Civ. 1908 (M.E.F.).
460 F.Supp. 40 (1978)
Margaret Walker ALEXANDER, Plaintiff, v. Alex HALEY, Doubleday & Company, Inc., and Doubleday Publishing Company, Defendants.
United States District Court, S. D. New York.
As Amended September 21, 1978.
Gilbert A. Holmes, New York City, Brown, Alexander & Sanders, Jackson, Miss., for plaintiff; Firnist J. Alexander, Jr., Everett T. Sanders, Jackson, Miss., of counsel.
Phillips, Nizer, Benjamin, Krim & Ballon, New York City, for defendant Alex Haley; George Berger, New York City, of counsel.
Satterlee & Stephens, New York City, for defendants Doubleday & Co., Inc., and Doubleday Publishing Co.; Robert M. Callagy, New York City, of counsel.
FRANKEL, District Judge.
Defendants' motions for summary judgment were held by the court pending an evidentiary hearing and report by Magistrate Gershon on one possibly material question of fact. The reports and recommendations are now before the court along with comments and objections by the parties. Upon all the original submissions, as thus amplified, the court concludes that defendants' motions should be granted.
The plaintiff, Margaret Walker Alexander, initiated twin copyright infringement and unfair competition actions against Alex Haley and Doubleday Publishing Company and Doubleday & Co., Inc., his publishers, based upon alleged similarities between the book Roots, written by Haley, and the novel Jubilee and the pamphlet How I Wrote Jubilee ("HIWJ"), both written by the plaintiff. Jubilee was copyrighted in 1966, and HIWJ in 1972. The copyright for Roots was registered in 1976, although a portion of the material which later became Roots appeared under copyright in The Reader's Digest in 1974.
Both Roots and Jubilee are amalgams of fact and fiction derived from the sombre history of black slavery in the United States. Each purports to be at least loosely based on the lives of the author's own forbears. Differences in scope are, however, more striking than the similarities. Jubilee is a historical novel which recounts the life of Vyry (described as the author's great grandmother) starting around 1835, from her childhood and early adulthood in slavery, through the Civil War years and into Reconstruction. The novel is divided roughly into thirds, marked out by the beginning and the end of the Civil War. HIWJ, as its title suggests, is an account of the author's career, including her awakening interest in her family's and people's past, her many years of research, her struggle to complete the manuscript amidst other obligations, and an explanation of the mixture of fact and fiction in Jubilee.
Roots covers a much broader canvas, commencing its narrative in Africa and continuing through multiple generations of a single family, described as the ancestors of the author. The story commences in about 1750 and continues through the birth and life of the author. Well over a fifth of the book is set in Africa, and approximately three-quarters covers a period antedating the time of Jubilee. In the closing pages the author relates the story of his own life, the evolution of his concern with his family's past, his developing interest in writing, his research and the completion of his manuscript. Particular emphasis is placed upon an account of the trail the author says was followed to the unearthing of the African roots of his family tree.
The case came before the court initially on defendants' motions for summary
Recognizing that the question of actual copying is not susceptible of resolution on papers, defendants chose to proffer a concession of this element to clear the way for a motion predicated on the argument that the kind of similarities relied upon by the plaintiff are not actionable as a matter of law. Finding the defendants' papers highly compelling, the court was nonetheless reluctant to decide the motion solely on the papers concerning the question of similarity, doubting that this question is necessarily sealed off hermetically from the question of copying on which defendants offered to concede arguendo.
The Magistrate has reported that the plaintiff has met her burden of proof as to the defendant Haley's access to Jubilee, but has failed to establish this essential element of her prima facie case as to HIWJ. Both recommended findings are fully supported by the record, and are adopted by the court.
But this carries plaintiff only a small and totally insufficient way toward the vindication of her claims. Upon the record as a
In order to demonstrate the alleged similarity between Roots on the one hand and Jubilee and HIWJ on the other, plaintiff submitted several sets of affidavits and answers to interrogatories setting forth passages from Roots along with passages from the plaintiff's works, with certain portions underscored to highlight the asserted similarities. Plaintiff also submitted an affidavit commenting seriatim on the alleged similarities.
After consideration of each of the numerous similarities suggested in the plaintiff's submissions, the court concludes that none supports the claim of infringement. By this the court means both that (1) no support is given to the claim of copying by such similarity as is shown,
Substantial similarity is ordinarily a question of fact, not subject to resolution on a motion for summary judgment. Arnstein v. Porter, supra, 154 F.2d at 469. In the instant case, however, defendants' argument is that such similarities as are claimed by the plaintiff are irrelevant because they relate solely to aspects of the plaintiff's works which are not protectable by copyright. The law seems clear that summary judgment may be granted when such circumstances are demonstrated. Gardner v. Nizer, 391 F.Supp. 940 (S.D.N.Y.1975); Fuld v. National Broadcasting Co., 390 F.Supp. 877 (S.D.N.Y.1975); Gethers v. Blatty, 283 F.Supp. 303, 305 (C.D.Cal.1968); Consumers Union Inc. v. Hobart Manufacturing Co., 199 F.Supp. 860, 861 (S.D.N.Y. 1961); Buckler v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 133 F.Supp. 223 (S.D.N.Y.1955); Millstein v. Leland Hayward, Inc., 10 F.R.D. 198, 199 (S.D.N.Y.1950). Cf. Bevan v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., 329 F.Supp. 601 (S.D.N.Y.1971).
The court agrees with defendants; each of the similarities asserted by the plaintiff is in one or more of several categories of attributes of written work which are not subject to the protection of the copyright laws.
Many of the claimed similarities are based on matters of historical or contemporary
Another major category of items consists of material traceable to common sources, the public domain, or folk custom. Thus, a number of the claimed infringements are embodiments of the cultural history of black Americans, or of both black and white Americans playing out the cruel tragedy of white-imposed slavery.
A third species of the alleged similarities constitutes what have been called scenes a faire. Reyher v. Children's Television Workshop, 533 F.2d 87, 91 (2d Cir. 1976). These are incidents, characters or settings which are as a practical matter indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic. Attempted escapes, flights through the woods pursued by baying dogs, the sorrowful or happy singing of slaves, the atrocity of the buying and selling of human beings, and other miseries are all found in stories at least as old as Mrs. Stowe's. This is not, and could not be, an offense to any author. Nobody writes books of purely original content. In any event, the plaintiff misconceives the protections of the copyright law in her listing of infringements by including such scenes a faire.
Yet another group of alleged infringements is best described as cliched language, metaphors and the very words of which the language is constructed. Words and metaphors are not subject to copyright protection; nor are phrases and expressions conveying an idea that can only be, or is typically, expressed in a limited number of stereotyped fashions. Reyher v. Children's Television Workshop, supra, 533 F.2d at 91; Bein v. Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc., 105 F.2d 969 (2d Cir. 1939); Richards v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., 161 F.Supp. 516, 518 (D.D.C.1958). Cf. Herbert Rosenthal Jewelry Corp. v. Kalpakian, 446 F.2d 738, 742 (9th Cir. 1971). Nor is the later use of stock ideas copyright infringement. Bevan v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., supra, 329 F.Supp. 601, at 606; Burnett v. Lambino, 204 F.Supp. 327, 332 (S.D.N.Y. 1962); Echevarria v. Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc., 12 F.Supp. 632, 635 (S.D.Cal. 1935); Lowenfels v. Nathan, 2 F.Supp. 73, 80 (S.D.N.Y.1934). Plaintiff collides with these principles over and over again as she extracts widely scattered passages from her book and pamphlet, and juxtaposes them against similarly scattered portions of Haley's Roots, only to demonstrate the use by both authors of obvious terms to describe expectable scenes.
Other alleged infringements display no similarity at all in terms of expression or language, but show at most some similarity of theme or setting.
Finally, some of the allegations of similarity are seen upon inspecting the books to be totally and palpably devoid of any factual basis. Cf. Arnstein v. Porter, supra, 154 F.2d at 473.
Every one of the alleged similarities between the plaintiff's two works and the defendants' book falls into at least one of the aforementioned categories of non-actionable material. Many fall into more than one. The review of the alleged similarities points unmistakably to the conclusion that no actionable similarities exist between the works.
The plaintiff has advanced claims of unfair competition in addition to her
The defendants' motions for summary judgment are granted. The complaints are dismissed.
It is so ordered.
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