As we’ve previously discussed, popular media often face copyright infringement claims after gaining notoriety. However, these copyright infringement cases represent some of the most difficult lawsuits for plaintiffs to win. In 2018, a videogame developer, brought suit against CBS and Netflix, alleging copyright infringement related to Star Trek: Discovery. Earlier this week, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court decision that Star Trek: Discovery did not constitute copyright infringement.
Copyright infringement: ownership + copying
Copyrights extend to the expressions of ideas, not to the overall ideas themselves; as such, books and movies can share overall plot points without infringing a copyright. The infringement occurs when two works are substantially similar to one another, such that a third-party would believe copying occurred. To get to that point, a plaintiff must prove “(1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original.” Feist Publ’ns, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 361 (1991). The second element, copyright of original elements, can be extremely difficult to prove.
In this case, the plaintiff, Anas Arbin, faced the burden of proving that Star Trek: Discovery infringed his copyright. Arbin’s videogame, Tardigrade, includes a space-traveling version of the tardigrade (“water bear”) microorganisms found on Earth. Current scientific experiments performed on tardigrades indicate that the microorganisms can survive in space. Arbin extended the results of these experiments to create an oversized version of the tardigrade within the game. For Star Trek: Discovery’s part, the show included a story arc including its own version of a space-traveling tardigrade, albeit with different plot points.
Did Star Trek: Discovery represent copyright infringement?
However, at its core, Arbin’s character was based on scientific facts, research, and opinions. Moreover, the similarities in story structure were limited to the general and broad ideas of space travel and alien interactivity. Since ideas do not constitute a valid copyright, the court ignored these scientific facts and broad story structures in deciding on copyright infringement. As such, the general idea of including a tardigrade in space within a medium does not constitute copyright infringement.
As a result, the court focused on comparing the “total concept and feel” of the works. Here, the unfinished nature of Arbin’s videogame likely doomed his case. Arbin’s copyright included some plot outlines and short videos published online during development, but Arbin didn’t actually make the game. On the other hand, Star Trek: Discovery published full seasons in 2018 and 2019, with season 3 beginning in October 2020. Moreover, Star Trek: Discovery continues common themes found within Star Trek spinoffs, creating a complete universe beyond the inclusion of a tardigrade. As such, the court concluded that Star Trek: Discovery did not constitute copyright infringement by simply including a tardigrade in space.