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Briggs v. Blomkamp

United States District Court, N.D. California

October 3, 2014

NEILL BLOMKAMP, et al., Defendants

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Steve Kenyatta Wilson Briggs, Plaintiff, Pro se, San Mateo, CA.

For Sony Pictures Ent., Inc., Tristar Pictures, Inc., Media Rights Capital, QED International, Neill Blomkamp, Defendants: Michael Joseph Kump, LEAD ATTORNEY, Gregory Philip Korn, Kinsella Weitzman et al LLP, Santa Monica, CA.

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PHYLLIS J. HAMILTON, United States District Judge.

The parties' motions for summary judgment came on for hearing before this court on September 3, 2014. Plaintiff Steve Wilson Briggs appeared in propria persona, and defendants Neill Blomkamp, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc., Tristar Pictures, Inc., Media Rights Capital II, L.P., and QED International LLC appeared by their counsel Michael J. Kump and Gregory P. Korn. Having reviewed the papers and other materials submitted by the parties, and having carefully considered their arguments and the relevant legal authority, the court hereby GRANTS defendants' motion and DENIES plaintiff's motion.


A. Procedural and Factual Background

The following facts are as alleged in the first amended complaint (" FAC" ). Plaintiff asserts that he completed a first draft of a screenplay entitled " Uberopolis: City of Light" in May 2005, and that he emailed copies of the screenplay to family and friends. On December 16, 2005, he registered a revised version of " Uberopolis: City of Light" with the Writers Guild of America (West).

In January 2006, plaintiff began attempting to market his screenplay. During approximately the next two years, he sent dozens of query letters and emails to literary agents and film companies. He also posted short synopses on screenwriter websites, and entered screenwriting and scriptwriting competitions.

In January 2007, plaintiff again revised his screenplay, and renamed it " Butterfly Driver." He claims that in February 2007, he posted the entire " Butterfly Driver" screenplay on, a filmmaker-screenwriter website designed to link filmmakers and screenwriters with industry professionals, by allowing members to post screenplays, short films, and short stories to get feedback from peers and professionals. Plaintiff asserts that at that time, the website had approximately 50,000 active members.

Plaintiff alleges that between February 2007 and August 2007, he posted " Butterfly Driver" on approximately four times, making script revisions each time. In December 2007, plaintiff stopped marketing the " Butterfly Driver" screenplay, as he had decided to film it himself some day. From 2008 to 2012, he worked on other film projects.

On May 27, 2013, plaintiff went to a movie theater, where he watched a trailer for a film called " Elysium," featuring a plot, characters, and settings that appeared to plaintiff to have been misappropriated from " Butterfly Driver." Later that evening, plaintiff read an entry on Wikipedia about the film " Elysium." He claims that this reading confirmed his view that the story structure of " Elysium" closely conformed to his " Butterfly Driver" screenplay.

Plaintiff alleges that on June 13, 2013, he located a version of the screenplay for " Elysium" online, and downloaded it. He claims that the text of the script conformed to the portion of the dialogue he had observed when he watched the trailer on May 27, 2013. After an attorney recommended that he register his copyright for " Butterfly Driver," he obtained a copyright registration from the U.S. Copyright Office on June 21, 2013.

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Defendants released " Elysium" in August 2013, and plaintiff viewed the film for the first time on August 10, 2013. Upon viewing the film, he concluded that the " Elysium" film and screenplay infringed his copyright in " Butterfly Driver," as a whole and with regard to features such as plot, characters, settings, and themes. He speculates that defendant Neill Blomkamp (" Blomkamp" ) accessed the " Butterfly Driver" screenplay on, and used it as the basis for his own screenplay for " Elysium."

Plaintiff filed the present action on October 8, 2013, asserting one cause of action for copyright infringement. Each side now seeks summary judgment.

B. Synopsis of " Butterfly Driver"

The protagonist of plaintiff's screenplay " Butterfly Driver" is Arlo Grainer. The year is 2120. Arlo is a " legend" on Earth because of his prior military service and subsequent defiance of the " Global State" (or " State" ). Arlo lives in a " Zone" outside the State's jurisdiction, working as a " hover-jet" pilot flying supplies between Zones. Living in the same building, but in a separate apartment, are Arlo's estranged wife (Rianna) and his two children (John Carl and Franny).

Arlo's antagonist, Drexler, is President of the State and the owner of " Uberopolis," a " satellite city" that orbits Earth. Uberopolis is three miles in diameter, and is enclosed in a transparent, spherical shield, with a " flora-sphere" and an " aqua-sphere" beneath the city floor. It is an ultra-modern city, with casinos, golf courses, high-rise apartments, and offices. At the time of the story, half of Uberopolis (also called " Sky Town" ) is developed; the other half (separated by a wall) is still under development.

At work in the warehouse from which he flies supplies, Arlo receives a distress signal from a fellow pilot, Roddy, and races on a " sky-cycle" to Roddy's location to find that he has been shot and is near death. Roddy tells Arlo that he was ambushed by bounty hunters, who " set us up to find the butterfly -- Tamara." He says they will be seeking out Arlo and his family next. Arlo flies home to collect his children and estranged wife, and send them to New York, away from the Zone.

Knowing that to reenter the State, his family will need a hundred thousand dollars to begin the " repatriation" process, Arlo accepts an offer from the warehouse operator, Dylan, to make a dangerous " butterfly run" to transport Tamara Gwynn to Los Angeles on a skycycle. Tamara is heading to Los Angeles for a trial in a civil suit against the State concerning her rights to the " A-cell" -- a small glass cylinder that produces electricity from " anti-matter" water. She tells Arlo that use of the A-cell can potentially save more than 100 million people every year, who would otherwise die from " fuel pollution."

Arlo sends the real A-cell to a different Zone to hide it; Tamara travels with a decoy. On the flight, they are ambushed by police in " sky-cars" and crash into the streets of Los Angeles. They separate, and Arlo is apprehended. Television news reports falsely claim that Arlo kidnapped and killed Tamara. Jerry Mathiessen, a federal agent who once attended flight school with Arlo, is sent to investigate. The State Secretary persuades Jerry to take the case by promising to pay for medical assistance for Jerry's son.

Arlo is criminally charged and transported to a " work program" on Uberopolis until his trial date. Four months later, he is given a " ticket" to return to Earth for his trial. While waiting for the shuttle transport, he meets a fellow prisoner, David Levine, also set to return for trial. They discuss the fact that the citizen-commute shuttles take five hours to travel

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from Uberopolis to Earth and back, while the inmate return shuttles take only two hours. As they are being loaded onto the shuttle along with other prisoners, they notice that there are no pilots, and conclude that Uberopolis has been killing prisoners by dumping them into space during the shuttle flights. They escape into an " airlock" to avoid suffering the same fate. They pilot the shuttle back to Earth and part ways.

Arlo locates his family in Rianna's mother's Manhattan apartment, and discovers that daughter Franny is on a respirator, near death, and in need of the drug " Drexlerin." Arlo races to a warehouse that normally stocks the drug, but supplies on Earth are temporarily exhausted because production of Drexlerin has been discontinued in anticipation of the release of its replacement, " Drexlerin 2." At the warehouse, Arlo meets brother and sister Louis and Benni. They provide Arlo with more respectable clothing, and help him obtain a fake ID and passport that will enable him to covertly travel by shuttle to Uberopolis to find Drexlerin. As Arlo is arranging for his transport on the shuttle, he also recovers the A-cell, which he had arranged to be sent to a friend for safekeeping. Benni gives Arlo a yellow butterfly " dreamcatcher" for luck.

Jerry manages to track Arlo down, but Arlo disarms Jerry and forces him into the trunk of a sky-car. Arlo tells Jerry he must find Drexlerin for Franny, and proceeds to Uberopolis. Upon arrival, Arlo obtains a police uniform and proceeds to the hospital warehouse to search for the Drexlerin. He discovers that the warehouse is empty, and as he is leaving the hospital, the security guards recognize him and give pursuit. He steals an unattended police " sky-ranger," and then contacts Drexler. After he tells Drexler he has the genuine A-cell, Drexler agrees to a meeting.

Based on the investigation he has been conducting, Jerry has figured out that Arlo and Drexler are acquainted from their past during wartime. After he is released from the trunk of the sky-car, Jerry follows Arlo to Uberopolis and orders a technician in the " Drexler Media" building to track Arlo's movements with surveillance cameras located throughout the satellite. Jerry forces the tech to broadcast the video from the surveillance cameras to television stations.

With the surveillance cameras tracking and broadcasting his movements, Arlo crashes the police sky-ranger through the glass windows of Drexler's 57th floor conference room. He persuades Drexler to dismiss the security guards by threatening to break the glass A-cell and release the anti-matter, which will result in a massive explosion.

Arlo and Drexler converse. Not knowing that the conversation is being televised, Drexler confesses to a number of crimes, including dumping prisoners into space and killing Zone residents and prisoners for transplant organs, and also to being an imposter. Drexler is actually " Midland," a soldier previously known to Arlo. Midland murdered the real Drexler, adopted his identity, and inherited Drexler's fortune.

Drexler tells Arlo that Drexlerin is produced on Earth, but was " warehoused" on Uberopolis " to keep it safe from pirates until our bunkers were ready" -- and that the last shipments were returned to Earth the previous day. However, he has a few doses of Drexlerin in his possession, and offers to exchange them for the A-cell. He also offers to have Arlo " escorted" to give his daughter the Drexlerin, after which he will be returned to prison.

Arlo initially hesitates, telling Drexler that Tamara didn't want him to have the A-cell. Drexler responds that " Tamara

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would have destroyed the energy industry and our economy for her cause." Drexler's plan is to phase the A-cell technology in over a thirty-year period, in order to protect the existing energy industry and the " quality of life," notwithstanding that billions of people will die in the interim.

They begin to exchange the A-cell for the Drexlerin. Drexler opens his briefcase and removes the Drexlerin. Arlo slowly extends the A-cell to Drexler, and takes the Drexlerin from him. He then sees in a mirror reflection that Drexler is reaching for a gun with his other hand. As Drexler's fingers come within an inch of the A-cell, Arlo tosses it out the broken window. Drexler scrambles out the window after the A-cell, gun in hand, followed by Arlo.

As Drexler is about to grab the A-cell, Arlo seizes Drexler's ankle, and flings Drexler toward the city floor. However, Arlo's throw is not hard enough to hurt Drexler, because of the reduced gravity on Uberopolis. Arlo then seizes the A-cell, just before his own " gravity garments" pull him down.

A lengthy fight and chase scene follows, involving Arlo, Drexler, Jerry, and the police, culminating in Drexler bearing down on Arlo on a sky-ranger and shooting him in the leg. Arlo dives into a harbor to escape Drexler and encounters a dolphin named Spike (whom he had previously met while waiting for transport with fellow prisoner David Levine) and is guided to an escape hatch.

Drexler finds Arlo on a shuttle. Just as Arlo is gaining the upper hand, he suffers a debilitating " ice pick" headache caused by a longstanding chronic affliction. Drexler shoots Arlo and is on the verge of killing him when Jerry arrives and discharges his stun-gun into Drexler's back, knocking him unconscious. Arlo and Jerry pilot the shuttle off Uberopolis. They are immediately targeted by a missile launched from Uberopolis.

Arlo drifts out of consciousness (from his bullet wound) and has a dreamlike vision of a pale child with a respirator holding a yellow flower, and of Benni's dream catcher in the eyes of Spike the dolphin. Arlo awakes and orders Jerry to turn back toward Uberopolis. The missile follows, and just before the shuttle collides with Uberopolis, Arlo launches an evacuation pod. The shuttle and missile continue forward and destroy Uberopolis.

Arlo and Franny survive. They attend the funeral of Jerry's son, Matty, who died from a respiratory illness. Rianna asks Arlo to " repatriate" into the State with his family, but he declines, and returns to his job as a hover-jet pilot.

C. Synopsis of " Elysium"

Defendants' film " Elysium" opens with images of Earth in total squalor. The year is 2154, and the extremely wealthy have abandoned the planet to live on a luxurious space station called " Elysium." Elysium is exclusive to its wealthy citizens, who have access to futuristic devices called " med bays," which cure all diseases and injuries, and can even halt aging. The less fortunate remaining on Earth are poor. They live in rundown apartments and have inadequate medical care, and are policed by a brutal robotic police force.

The film's protagonist, Max, grows up as a child in a convent where he befriends a young girl, Frey. As a child, Max steals under the delusion that he can buy his way onto Elysium. He continues stealing as an adult and has an extensive criminal history. On parole, Max lives in Los Angeles and works at a company called Armadyne building the robots that police Earth. Walking toward a bus headed to work, Max is confronted and battered by robot police officers. He proceeds to a hospital and is surprised when he is treated by Frey, now a nurse.

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The film cuts to a mass of people trying to board shuttles bound for Elysium. An ID is burned onto the wrist of everyone who boards the shuttle. The shuttles take off. As they approach Elysium, the space station's Defense Secretary, Delacourt, gives an order to a covert agent on Earth, Kruger, to destroy the shuttles. Kruger destroys two of the shuttles with shoulder-fired rockets. The third shuttle lands on Elysium, and the " illegal aliens" on board flee robot police forces. One young girl enters a residence and is able to use a med bay because the ID on her wrist fools the device into believing she is a citizen of Elysium. Patel, the President of Elysium, reprimands Delacourt and dismisses Kruger.

Back on Earth, Max is accidentally shut in a chamber while working at Armadyne, and is exposed to a heavy dose of radiation. In a flashback scene, a nun hands the child Max a locket with a photo of Earth to remind him that Earth looks as beautiful from there as Elysium " looks beautiful from here." Max awakes and is told by an Armadyne robot that he will die in five days from the radiation exposure.

Max finds Spider, a smuggler who runs the illegal shuttles to Elysium. In exchange for a promise of a shuttle ride to Elysium where he might be able to access a med bay to cure his fatal condition, Max accepts a dangerous mission: he must kidnap Armadyne's chief officer, John Carlyle, and download valuable data from Carlyle's brain into his own using a futuristic device. An exoskeleton is installed onto Max's body and head to give him super-human strength.

Meanwhile, Delacourt has persuaded Carlyle, who also designed Elysium, to prepare a " reboot sequence" that will allow her to wrest the presidency of Elysium from the current President, Patel, with whom she has political differences. Carlyle uploads the software program into his brain, and leaves Earth on a private shuttle. However, Max and his fellow rebels intercept the shuttle, capture Carlyle, and plug Carlyle's brain into Max's. Max's brain seizes when the download starts because of a defense mechanism that Carlyle encoded into the reboot sequence.

Delacourt learns of the kidnapping and orders Kruger to intercede but to avoid harming Max (because Max holds the reboot sequence in his brain). Max evades Kruger and his men, who arrive in an airship and kill everyone else. Severely injured, Max finds Frey, who takes him to her home. He tells Frey that he must travel to Elysium to save his life. Frey begs Max to take her daughter Matilda, who is dying of leukemia, with him. He refuses, in order to protect them, and leaves.

Max returns to Spider's hideout to get a shuttle to Elysium, but the air traffic system has been frozen by the authorities on Elysium. Spider plugs a computer into Max's brain and is astonished to see that Max now possesses a reboot sequence that would " override the whole system" and " open the borders," thus making everyone a citizen of Elysium. Max is interested only in saving his own life and refuses to help Spider. He leaves and voluntarily surrenders to Kruger. Max threatens that he will blow up Kruger's ship with a grenade unless he is taken to a med bay on Elysium, but as he boards the ship, he discovers that Kruger has found and kidnapped Frey and Matilda.

A fight erupts en route to Elysium. Max drops the grenade. It detonates, destroying Kruger's face and crashing the ship on Elysium. Frey and Matilda flee to a house in hopes of using a med bay, but it does not work because Matilda is not a citizen. All three are captured.

Delacourt confronts Kruger for crashing a ship onto Elysium. ...

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