Judge Dismisses Claim that Beyonce’s Lemonade Infringed Copyright

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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BeyonceA federal judge in New York dismissed a copyright suit claiming that Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” movie infringed the copyright of a short film.

The plaintiff in the case, Matthew Fulks, is an independent filmmaker and television creative director.

In 2014, Fulks made the seven-minute short “Palinoia,” which depicts “the pain of a tumultuous relationship.”

According to the judge’s opinion, the short consists of

seemingly unrelated visuals in rapid montage, with the recitation of a poem used as voiceover against a distinctive soundtrack.

The main character is a Caucasian man. An unseen figure speaks French in the background of several scenes and the film includes English subtitles.

The film can be seen here.

Lemonade

In 2016, Beyoncé and her music label released a trailer and film to promote her album “Lemonade.”

The 58-minute film premiered on HBO and uses poetry and prose written by Somali poet Warsan Shire as well as 11 songs from the Lemonade album.

The 65-second trailer can be viewed here.

Fulks claimed that the Lemonade trailer and film infringed the copyright in his own short film, saying that they contain:

  • nine examples of “visual” similarities;
  • “audio” similarities; and
  • similarities in “total concept and feel.”

A comparison of the works can be seen here.

He sought a share of the profits from the full-length film and the album.

Proving Copyright Infringement

Proving copyright infringement requires a showing that:

  • the defendant had access to the plaintiff’s copyrighted work
  • the protectable material in the two works is “substantially similar”

The defendants didn’t dispute access. Fulks had submitted links to his work to multiple people at the Columbia music label, including a video executive credited on the Lemonade album.

However, the defendants argued that the works weren’t substantially similar as a matter of law.

Substantial Similarity

According to one legal standard,

Works are substantially similar if an “ordinary observer, unless he set out to detect the disparities, would be disposed to overlook them, and regard [the] aesthetic appeal as the same.”

In applying the test, courts

compar[e] the contested design’s total concept and overall feel with that of the allegedly infringed work . .. as instructed by our good eyes and common sense…

The judge compared the two works and concluded:

Plaintiff’s alleged similarities consist almost entirely of clearly defined ideas not original to plaintiff and of stock elements with which even a casual observer would be familiar. Moreover, to the very limited extent that there are even any superficial similarities, these are overwhelmed by the works’ vastly different creative choices and overall aesthetic feel.

For example, the first similarity claimed by the plaintiff was between two shots showing the main character, head down, leaning against a stable structure, in distress, with graffiti words nearby.

The judge noted that

The concept of a “state of distress” is an unprotected idea not original to plaintiff. … It also flows naturally and necessarily that a distressed character would be leaning (as opposed to dancing) against something stable (as opposed to delicate) and that his or her head would be down (as opposed to up).

The judge also noted that the gender, race, wardrobe, and hairstyles of the characters were different.

The judge proceeded to do a detailed analysis of the other allegedly similar elements, and concluded that “an ordinary observer would not regard the ‘aesthetic appeal’ of the works at issue as the same….”

Look at the trailer and the short film. Do you agree with the judge’s conclusions?

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