Tales of drug-dealing, jail time and growing up in the ghetto are too common to be considered original elements of a copyrighted work.

The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey recently granted hip-hop artist 50 Cent’s motion to dismiss a suit brought by a plaintiff who sued the rapper for copyright infringement. Winstead v. Jackson, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107560 (D.N.J. 2011).

The plaintiff, Shadrach Winstead (“Winstead”), claimed that 50 Cent (also known as Curtis Jackson) (“Jackson”) used words and plot themes from Winstead’s copyrighted autobiography “Preacher’s Son – But the Streets Turned Me Into a Gangster” (the “book”) in a CD/DVD set produced by Jackson in 2009. Winstead asserted that several elements from the autobiography – including jail time for the main characters, committing crimes for money, and the death of a parent – were also present in Jackson’s production “Before I Self-Destruct” (the “film”). Winstead also claimed that portions of dialogue were taken from his book and used in the script of the film.

Jackson filed a motion to dismiss the suit, arguing that Winstead failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The Court granted Jackson’s motion, determining that the elements that Winstead argued he had copyright protection over were so common that they could not be considered copyrighted material. The decision relied on a copyright law doctrine known as “scenes a faire” which essentially means that there are certain elements to a work that are not protected by copyright since they are essential to express the character of the work itself.

To establish a claim of copyright infringement, a plaintiff must establish:

  1. ownership of a valid copyright; and
  2. unauthorized copying of original elements of the plaintiff’s work.”

Dun & Bradstreet Software Servs. v. Grace Consulting, Inc., 307 F.3d 197, 206 (3d. Cir. 2002).

Though Winstead was able to prove ownership of a valid copyright in his book, the Court found that he could not prove any copying of original elements from his work. “[G]eneral plot ideas and themes lie in the public domain and are not protected by copyright law,” the Court stated. Id. at 6. “In addition, all situations and incidents which flow naturally from a basic plot premise, known as scenes a faire, are not entitled to copyright protection.” Id.

While the Court acknowledged the similarities between the two works’ characters, themes and settings, it held that these common features have been part of the public domain for some time and have provided the themes for many films and television programs before. “[A]ny common themes of a young male whose tumultuous upbringing leads him to resort to a life of crime and violence in order to gain power and money are scenes a faire.” Id. at 7.

Winstead also argued that Jackson lifted dialogue from his book – including phrases such as “ringing,” “stash,” and “get the dope, cut the dope” – for use in the film. However, the Court also found this language too common to be the protected under Winstead’s copyright. “The average layman, who would be observing these phrases in the context of an overall story or song, would not regard these minute snippets as unique or protectable,” the Court held. Id. at 9.

The Court’s decision is significant because it demonstrates that there are limits to how much copyrighted material is protected. Winstead’s copyright protection over his book did not extend to plot themes and generic language used in it. The Court’s holding gives copyright holders an example of elements in the public domain that are not included within the scope of copyright protection.

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