from the cross-purposes dept
While we've covered plenty of supposed copyright stories centered around some folks' misunderstanding of the idea/expression dichotomy, it isn't every day you come across one of these cases that involves Christian on Christian litigation violence. But I guess if copyright is everywhere, virtually perpetual and attached to a creation simply by being created, it was only a matter a time before it butted up against godly works.
Kelly Kullberg and Michael Landon Jr. are screenwriters who wrote an as-yet un-filmed screenplay called Rise. It was the story about a student and professor finding themselves debating the existence of god, with the student eventually winning out. And, then there's a film that was made, God's Not Dead, which is a creatively-named film about a student and professor who find themselves debating the existance of god, with the student eventually winning out. It somehow grossed about $100 million worldwide, despite starring Kevin Sorbo, best known for playing Hercules in a television show of the same name. There are obvious plot similarities between the two.
But one must keep in mind the idea/expression dichotomy. General plots are not afforded copyright. Only the specific expression of a work, and in some cases characters, are afforded copyright. According to the complaint (which was filed by Irell & Manella -- the law firm last seen pretending a monkey gets copyright), the elements over which Kullberg and Landon Jr. are suing are examples of the former:
[A] young college student who has to debate a popular and charming atheist professor over the course of three debates, who struggles in the first debate, but succeeds in the next two after support and encouragement from characters including an unmarried local pastor, a rural married couple, the atheist professor’s wife who is also the professor’s former student (a lapsed Christian doing her own soul-searching) and an international student ally, and manages to persuade many others, including the professor, that God does exist.
Those are almost perfect examples of generic plots and not copyrightable expression. The complaint goes on to note other similarities between the two works, such as the use of certain phrases, such as "God is good", and the citation in the debate scenes of similar Christian apologetic works and authors. For the phrases: come on, we're talking generic religious phrasing here. For the citations: the number of Christian apologetics out there isn't vast, so you'd expect this kind of overlap in dealing with the same subject matter. Suing over these kinds of generic elements almost never works.
In addition to the generic nature of what the complaint focuses on, there's also the matter of what it chose to ignore: all of the other plot elements that are in no way similar to Rise.
The complaint is largely confined to the main story of God's Not Dead and does not make reference to subplots featuring minor characters who either are ostracized for converting to Christianity or are dealt cruel twists of fate for being atheists. (In one such subplot, a liberal reporter who writes nasty posts about Duck Dynasty is stricken with cancer — though she converts to Christianity and is cured in the sequel.)
The film was followed by a sequel, God's Not Dead 2, released in April of this year. Although a few minor characters were retained from the first film, including Reverend Dave played by White, it focused on a new, unrelated story of a high school teacher being prosecuted by the ACLU for quoting scripture in a history class. Nevertheless, plaintiffs allege that the sequel is “at a minimum, a derivative work.” It is implied by a post-credits cliffhanger in GNG2 that Reverend Dave’s saga will continue in a third film. The scene shows him being arrested for refusing to comply with a subpoena to produce copies of his sermons.
If you're thinking to yourself that these sound like awful, awful films, the critics largely agree with you. But they are certainly not infringing upon Rise. Everything listed in the complaint is generic idea and not expression.