from the making-the-tardigrade dept
As one of the most beloved science fiction series in history, it’s no surprise that the Star Trek franchise has seen its share of intellectual property flare ups. With Viacom manning the IP enforcement guns, it only makes sense that the series has been the subject of the company’s failed attempt to pretend Fair Use doesn’t exist, the company’s failed attempts at copyright enforcement taking down an authorized Star Trek panel, and the company’s failed attempt to actually be good humans to the series’ adoring fans.
But this is not a story of Viacom failing at yet another thing. Instead, Viacom/CBS, along with Netflix, won in court, defeating an appeal by a video game maker that tried to claim that one episode of Star Trek Discovery infringed on the copyrights for a video game.
CBS and Netflix re-affirmed an earlier win in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit over a copyright infringement lawsuit filed against both companies due to a plotline in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery that a video game creator alleged infringed upon the plot of his unreleased game. The video game was about a giant tardigrade who traveled through outer space and a similar creature played a key role in Star Trek Discover Season 1.
After the Second Circuit lower court had already dismissed the claims, the Court of Appeals agreed in upholding the lower court ruling that both the video game and the TV show were relying on uncopyrightable scientific facts about tardigrades and their ability to survive in outer space.
While it’s a wonder the lawsuit was ever filed in the first place, why in the world Anas Osama Ibrahim Abdin went on to appeal that initial ruling is a complete mystery. The issue at hand was a story arch in the first season of Discovery which dealt with a giant tardigrade. Tardigrades are real life, tiny creatures that typically survive within water droplets. The most interesting aspect of tardigrades is that they have been shown to have been able to survive in the vacuum of outer space. Abdin’s video game also dealt with tardigrades that survived the outer reaches of space. On essentially this basis alone, Abdin filed both his original suit and the appeal.
This is yet another instance where the idea/expression dichotomy of copyright law comes into play. This dichotomy dictates that copyright can be afforded to specific expression, but not to a general idea. And certainly not to an idea comprised essentially of real life scientific discovery. So, if Discovery told the same story about the same tardigrade creature, merely having a tardigrade in its plot is not somehow infringement just because both works are set in space.
While “[t]he distinction between an idea and its expression is an elusive one,” Crichton, 84 F.3d at 587-88, Abdin’s space-traveling tardigrade is an unprotectible idea because it is a generalized expression of a scientific fact -namely, the known ability of a tardigrade to survive in space.
While the court’s opinion is 40 pages long, that one paragraph does all of its work in affirming the lower court’s ruling.