SCOTUS Shelves Request to Review 11th Circuit Dark Tower Decision, Ending Copyright Saga
The Supreme Court’s refusal to review the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in DuBay v. King, marks an end to a 4-year copyright battle concerning the lead character of Stephen King’s acclaimed series, The Dark Tower. The Eleventh Circuit’s decision affirmed that the King’s anti-hero, Roland Deschain, is not substantially similar to William DuBay’s The Rook comic book character, Restin Dane. The decision illustrates the complexity of literary copyright infringement disputes, where a claim is brought based on a mix of original and stock character elements.
In 2017 William DuBay’s heir, Benjamin DuBay, sued novelist Stephen King, Marvel Entertainment, Sony Entertainment, and others for various counts of copyright infringement, alleging that King copied DuBay’s artistic expression based on purported similarity between lead characters of The Rook (Restin Dane) and The Dark Tower (Roland Deschain). The district court granted summary judgment to King, determining (1) that any similarities between the characters comprise unprotectable general ideas and scènes à faire elements; and (2) that the protectable original character elements in dispute are different, such that “no reasonable jury…could find the works substantially similar.” DuBay appealed.
The principal issue on appeal was whether the district court erred in assessing substantial similarity. DuBay argued that the characters were substantially similar based on several shared characteristics, including: (1) similar names; (2) interaction with time-travel related towers; (3) having a bird as a companion; (4) having knightly characteristics; (5) wearing Western-style clothing; (6) surviving a fictionalized interpretation of The Alamo; (7) the use of knives; and (8) traveling back in time to save a young boy who becomes a gunslinger. DuBay also argued that the unique combination of these elements made Dane a distinctive character, and that Deschain is a copy of DuBay’s artistic expression in that character.
The Eleventh Circuit addressed DuBay’s contentions in two parts.
First, the court assessed whether each of the claimed character elements merit copyright protection. The court affirmed the district court’s holding that “character names do not merit copyright protection,” since mere words and short phrases cannot be protected under copyright law. The court reiterated that only original elements of a copyrighted work can be afforded protection, and that certain claimed elements (i.e., “knightly heritage,” time travel to “different times and parallel worlds,” “western attire,” “fictionalized Alamo histories,” and “knife wielding”) are merely general ideas or scènes à faire that are “too general to merit copyright protection.” The court then reviewed the remaining elements to determine whether the shared characteristics rendered the characters substantially similar. Although both characters may be broadly similar in having bird companions, a relationship to towers and tower imagery, and past time travel experiences involving the rescue of a young boy, the court found that the depiction of these elements was different in each work. For example, whereas Dane lives in and travels via tower shaped structures shaped like the namesake chess piece, Deschain embarks on an endless mission to find an elusive Gothic tower that connects parallel worlds and time periods. Because the portrayals of each original element are distinguishable, the court determined that no reasonable jury could have concluded that the works were similar.
Second, the court examined whether the characters are substantially similar based on each character’s combination of the claimed elements (or the “look and feel” of the characters). The Court recognized of the potential dangers of comparing works based on individual similarities alone because an original combination of unoriginal elements can potentially sustain a claim of copyright infringement. However, the court found that any similarities of combined elements were “superficial” at best, and that the “look and feel” analysis actually hurt, rather than helped, DuBay’s case by highlighting differences in expression of shared original character elements.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Dubay reinforces the basic tenet of copyright law that general ideas or scènes à faire cannot be protected by copyright. It also reminds litigants that although a combination of original and non-original elements can be protected under copyright law, broad similarities are usually insufficient to sustain a copyright infringement claim.
The case is DuBay v. King, 844 Fed. Appx. 257 (11thCir. 2019), cert. denied, 142 S. Ct. 490 (2021).