Seth MacFarlane Prevails in Copyright Infringement Suit over Ted Movie

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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: Apr 3, 2015

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Teddy BearWriter/performer Seth MacFarlane and Universal Pictures have prevailed in a lawsuit charging that they engaged in copyright infringement in connection with the 2012 hit movie Ted.

Ted, an R-rated comedy, is about a lecherous, foul-mouthed stuffed bear that comes to life. The movie was co-written and directed by MacFarlane, who also provided the voice of Ted, and distributed by Universal.

The movie earned more than half a billion dollars worldwide and the sequel is scheduled to be released in June.

In July 2014, Bengal Mangle Productions LLC filed a federal lawsuit claiming that MacFarlane and Universal had stolen the basis for the movie from their 2009 web series entitled “Charlie the Abusive Teddy Bear.”

Charlie vs. Ted

Charlie was originally a character in a 2008 web series called “Acting School Academy,” viewed at least 1.2 million times on FunnyOrDie, YouTube, and other websites. He was later spun off into his own online series.  

According to the complaint, Charlie the bear “lives in a human, adult world with all human friends,” and “has a penchant for drinking, smoking, prostitutes, and is a generally vulgar yet humorous character.”

Charlie, like Ted, is a washed up former child star who spends a lot of time sitting on a living room couch, drinking and smoking.

Charlie, like Ted, “posted” on social media making fun of other bear characters such as Winnie the Pooh.

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Dropping the Suit

After engaging in discovery, Bengal Mangle concluded thatthe character Ted was independently created by Seth MacFarlane using his own efforts and creativity and was not copied from plaintiffs’ Charlie character.”

Bengal Mangle dropped its suit as a result, and the case was dismissed. It appears that the plaintiffs received no financial settlement, and each side is bearing its own costs and attorney’s fees.

Copyright Infringement

It’s not uncommon for a copyright infringement suit to be brought charging that elements of a hit movie were “stolen.”

In a copyright case, a plaintiff has the burden of proving that the defendant copied “original elements” from the plaintiff’s copyrighted work.

A plaintiff may show this copying by showing that:

  • the defendant had access to the plaintiff’s work
  • there are substantial similarities between the defendant’s work and the original elements of the plaintiff’s work

Originality

Often, these copyright infringement suits fail because the allegedly stolen elements of the plaintiff’s work are not “original.”

For example, many Westerns will include scenes with cowboys, cattle, bar rooms, gunfights, and other common elements.

Under the scènes à faire doctrine in copyright law, it’s recognized that certain elements and scenes are almost obligatory in certain genres. Thus, these elements are not “original” and are not protected under copyright law.

Access

Copyright suits also fail because the plaintiff cannot show that the defendant reasonably had access to the copyrighted work. The fact that a script was entered into a screenwriting contest or submitted to an agent is generally not enough to establish that a defendant had access, for example.

Substantial Similarity

Whether two works are “similar” is usually a matter for jury, as shown in the recent “Blurred Lines” case.

If you have questions about copyright law, or you believe you may have a copyright infringement claim, you may wish to consult an attorney in your area.

 

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