In 1994, The Burger King Kids Club teamed up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to summarily dismiss a claim by the Curious Kids, an unproduced idea that claimed to be the original version of a multi-ethnic, multi-racial cartoon.
CK COMPANY, Plaintiff, v. BURGER KING CORPORATION and SAATCHI & SAATCHI ADVERTISING, INC., Defendants.
92 Civ. 1488 (CSH)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
1994 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13934; Copy. L. Rep. (CCH) P27,325
Decided – September 29, 1994
Judge Haight for the Court explains:
In this copyright action, defendants move for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint. Plaintiff claims that Burger King’s “Kids Club,” a series of child cartoon characters featured in Burger King commercials and in-store promotional materials, infringes on plaintiff’s unproduced proposal for television commercials and specials featuring its own group of child cartoon characters called the “Curious Kids.” Defendants claim that Burger King’s Kids Club lacks any substantial similarity to the protectable elements of the Curious Kids.
The Court continues:
This case presents the familiar copyright question of substantial similarity in the novel context of two groups of multi-ethnic, multi-racial cartoon children.
WAIT, what? HAHA. It’s 1994. And so “multi-ethnic, multi-racial cartoon children” is a “novel context” HA! Dora the Explorer won’t air for another six years.
Explaining the characters in question:
The characters in the Burger King Kids Club, in contrast [to the plaintiff's characters, the Curious Kids], are extreme stereotypes. The commercials and promotional materials before the Court portray the Kids Club personalities as one-dimensional cartoons. The tone of defendants’ commercials demonstrates the lightweight, playful nature of the Kids Club. While the Curious Kids deal with significant social issues, the Kids Club deals with issues no more weighty than how children can obtain promotional items such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle badges, plastic toy hamburgers, fries, or shakes at participating Burger King restaurants.
Continuing about the Kids Club:
The visual presentation of the Kids Club commercials demonstrates the fundamental differences in tone and structure between the Kids Club and the Curious Kids. The Kids Club commercials rely on special effects and highly stylized graphics. These commercials show the Kids Club members being magically transported in and out of different places, soaring through the air on a flying cheeseburger, ducking to avoid self-propelled french fries and milk shakes that fly into paper bags, and zapping Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a stun ray.
Continuing to contrast, the Court notes:
while the Curious Kids wear normal, everyday clothes typical for young teens, the Kids Club members each wear highly stylized outfits exaggerating their stereotypical character type. For example, Kid Vid is outfitted with a plethora of remote controls, headphones, portable stereo equipment, and some type of goggles, and Wheels wears a spacesuit. This magical, high-tech style contrasts with the realistic portrayal of the Curious Kids.
Is that why the Court has twice highlighted the TMNT connection? This is not the first time a Federal Court opinion has unnecessarily mentioned a Ninja Turtle promotional item – See previous NinjaLaw posts about TMNT in cola wars and TMNT in ooze products and TMNT in movie distribution. Is it used in these cases to set the social context or just because judges like ninja turtles? In the Kids Clubs case is it used to further the pronouncement of exaggerated stereotypical character types? Is TMNT, in this way, an early example of multi-ethnic, multi-racial cartoon characters? At the very least they seem to be important supporting characters.
Conclusion of the Court:
Defendants have established that any similarities between the Kids Club and the Curious Kids relate only to unprotectable elements, and that no reasonable jury could find the works substantially similar. Defendants are therefore entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
A rehearing of this case was denied and the appellate court affirmed by the Second Circuit (122 F.3d 1055) without issuing an opinion.
I love when Judges decide that no reasonable jury could find a work similar. In this case the proof of copying was weak, the plaintiff’s characters had never been produced and the connection between the plaintiff’s and Burger King’s advertising agency was tenuous. But the Court does not decide there is no copying, rather that there were no protectable elements of intellectual property. The idea of a group of multi-ethnic, multi-racial characters with one in a wheelchair, is not protectable – or else surely one of these parties might own rights to Glee too.
Note the Court also wrote:
given racial and gender stereotypes of leadership it is unfortunately no surprise that the only white, male, non-handicapped, non-“nerd” member of each group assumes the leadership role. See Selmon v. Hasbro Bradley, Inc., 669 F. Supp. at 1272-73 (not unusual that lion-like creature assigned role of “king of the jungle”).
Judge Haight’s opinion in the Kids Club case has been cited six times for the following propositions:
1) “Copyright law will not protect characters where ‘it is virtually impossible to write about a particular fictional theme without employing certain stock or standard literary devices.’ … theme of diverse group of children sharing adventures unprotectible under copyright law” in Robinson v. Viacom 1995 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9781, Copy. L. Rep. (CCH) P27480 (S.D.N.Y. July 13, 1995)
2) “concepts and ideas may not be copyrighted, and that only a particular expression of an idea may be copyrighted.” Proctor and Gamble v. Colgate-Palmolive and Young and Rubicam, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17773 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 5, 1998), citing Robinson v. Viacom, Id.
3) “shared trait, by itself, is insufficient to establish substantial similarity between the characters.” Hogan v. DC Comics, 48 F. Supp. 2d 298 (S.D.N.Y. 1999) comparing “the main characters in Matchsticks and Dhampire [in] that they share the same name: Nicholas Gaunt”
4) Willis v. HBO, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17887, 60 U.S.P.Q.2d (BNA) 1916 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 5, 2001) comparing characters in Arli$$ and Schmoozers:
‘The essence of infringement lies in taking not a general theme, but its particular expression through similarities of treatment, details, scenes, events and characterization.’ Reyher, 533 F.2d at 91. ‘The law will not grant an author a monopoly over the unparticularized expression of an idea at such a level of abstraction or generality as unduly to inhibit independent creation by others.’ Gund, Inc. v. Smile Int’l, Inc., 691 F. Supp. 642, 644 (S.D.N.Y. 1988), aff’d mem., 872 F.2d 1021 (2d Cir. 1989). Consistent with these principles, copyright law does not protect stock characters, incidents or settings that are as a practical matter indispensable or standard in the treatment of a given topic. Hoehling v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 618 F.2d 972, 979 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 841, 66 L. Ed. 2d 49, 101 S. Ct. 121 (1980).
5) “concepts and ideas may not be copyrighted and that only a particular expression of an idea may be copyrighted.” CBS Survivor v. ABC Granada, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20258 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 13, 2003) comparing Big Brother and Survivor to “I’m a Celebrity get me out of here” in regards to elements like island survival and “serial elimination”. The court finds for Celebrity and thus is born an era of vote-off reality TV shows in the style of Big Brother and Survivor – a style not protectable by copyright. NBC and Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” premiered the following year.
6) And most recently cited regarding children’s book characters in Lewinson v. Henry Holt & Co., LLC, 659 F. Supp. 2d 547 S.D.N.Y. 2009) “[C]opyright law does not protect stock characters . . . standard in the treatment of a given topic.” “[T]he broad theme of a diverse group of children sharing adventures and experiences is by itself unprotectable under the copyright laws.”