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  • Writer's pictureDavid Baker

A is for Apple, B is for Ball, and C is for Copyright Infringement

Like moths to a flame, few things attract a copyright infringement lawsuit quite like a surprisingly successful television series. So, it probably should not come as a surprise that ABC's "Abbott Elementary," which just was nominated for seven Emmys, has led to its first copyright infringement lawsuit.

Christine Davis, an aspiring writer, actress and performer, has filed suit naming the network and creator Quinta Brunson in a copyright infringement lawsuit that claims the hit comedy is a "knock-off" of the plaintiff's own show. Davis alleges that Brunson and ABC used the premise of her show, "This School Year," to create "Abbott Elementary" and did so without Davis' consent. Also, not surprisingly, Davis is seeking unspecified monetary damages and a jury trial.

More specifically, the complaint alleges that the shows are "striking and substantially similar" and that the "look and feel of the inner-city school, the mockumentary style, unique plot synopsis, set design and unique characters" were all based off of Davis' original script, which she wrote in 2018 and registered with the copyright office in 2020, a year ahead of "Abbott Elementary's" debut on ABC in December 2021.

Quinta Brunson is a writer, actress and stand-up comedian who stars on the show as young, optimistic idealistic teacher Janine Teagues who has to learn to deal with the day-to-day challenges of teaching at an inner-city Philadelphia elementary school. She is also a producer and writer on the show.

Davis alleges that she contacted Shavon Sullivan Wright and Cherisse Parks at Blue Parks Productions in Los Angeles in mid-June and July of 2020 and that she had three different meetings regarding "This School Year." She became aware that both Hulu and ABC were looking for "Black, female-led comedies" and that she received notes on her scripts.

In order to prevail on her lawsuit, Davis will have to prove that there are substantial similarities between “This School Year” and “Abbott Elementary” and that those similarities were intentionally created. Thus, her complaint also alleges that the two scripts have young teacher characters whose "roles are nearly identical in type" and older main characters who are also "nearly identical." It claims that even the plots to the opening episodes to both series are very similar, in which the school's principal asserts her dominance by taking the central character’s classroom rug.

Davis has already satisfied another requirement by filing an application for registration of her script with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Why It Matters. In very broad terms, copyright infringement occurs when a person or a business entity uses any of a creator’s exclusive rights to a unique creative work without permission. This includes all manners of distribution (selling, broadcasting, performing, etc.), adaptation or other copying of the work. Infringement can occur whether or not the violating party seeks monetary gain through the use of the material in question, though any argument against copyright infringement is usually considered stronger without a profit motive.

Copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression. Under U.S. copyright law provides copyright owners with the following exclusive rights:

  • Reproduce the work in copies.

  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work.

  • Distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending.

  • Perform the work publicly if it is a literary, musical, dramatic, or choreographic work; a pantomime; or a motion picture or other audiovisual work.

  • Display the work publicly if it is a literary, musical, dramatic, or choreographic work; a pantomime; or a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work. This right also applies to the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work.

  • Perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission if the work is a sound recording.

Copyright also provides the owner of copyright the right to authorize others to exercise these exclusive rights, subject to certain statutory limitations. But when there is no authority given and unauthorized use occurs, there may be copyright infringement. And where there’s copyright infringement, there may be substantial monetary damages.

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