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A reasonable jury could conclude that a screenwriter had a “reasonable possibility of access” to another author’s screenplay, the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled April 14, reversing a lower court ( Christopher R. Robinson v. New Line Cinema Corp., et al ., No. 99-2167, 4th Cir.). A reasonable jury could also conclude that “Sister Sarah,” written by Christopher R. Robinson, and “Set It Off,” written by Takashi Bufford, are substantially similar, the court said, vacating the entry of summary judgment to Bufford and New Line Cinema in a copyright infringement action brought by Robinson. Robinson submitted a copy of “Sister Sarah” to New Line in 1993. Amy Labowitz, manager of New Line’s acquisitions department, had the details of the script’s submission logged into the company’s computerized script library system and referred the script to an outside reader. When the outside reader recommended against production of the script, Labowitz returned it to Robinson. Shortly thereafter, Bufford submitted “Set It Off” to Helena Echegoyen at New Line. After New Line released the movie “Set It Off” in 1996, Robinson sued in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, alleging copyright infringement. U.S. Judge Andre M. Davis entered summary judgment for New Line and Bufford, holding that no reasonable jury could find for Robinson on the issues of Bufford’s access to his screenplay and the substantial similarity between the two screenplays. POSSIBILITY OF ACCESS Reversing and remanding, the Fourth Circuit held that the lower court erred in concluding that Robinson failed to raise an issue of fact as to whether Bufford had a “reasonable possibility of access” to Robinson’s screenplay. “It is undisputed that Labowitz received Robinson’s script and had the details of the script’s submission logged into New Line’s computerized ‘script library system,’” the panel said. “And Robinson has set forth sufficient facts in the record to require us to assume that Echegoyen and Bufford had a very close working relationship and discussed ‘Set It Off’ and other projects on which Bufford was working. Therefore, to survive summary judgment, Robinson only needed to set forth sufficient facts in the record to create a triable question of fact as to whether it was reasonably possible that Echegoyen had access to a copy of the script originally given to Labowitz by Robinson.” Robinson satisfied that requirement, the panel said, by proffering evidence that Labowitz and Echegoyen worked for the same company in the same building and attended the same weekly meeting for New Life executives. Further, the panel said, even if Robinson’s script was not discussed or given to Echegoyen, “one could infer that, through these meetings, Labowitz and others in Labowitz’s department would have been made aware of Echegoyen’s special mandate to produce ‘black genre’ films such as ‘Set It Off’ and ‘Sister Sarah.’” Moreover, the panel said, “we cannot say as a matter of law that the similarities between the two screenplays are so attenuated or general that no reasonable jury could find that ‘Sister Sarah’ and ‘Set It Off’ are substantially similar.” Robinson is represented by Francis J. Gorman and Charles L. Simmons Jr. of Gorman & Williams in Baltimore. New Line is represented by Neil B. Strachan and Dino S. Sangiamo of Venable, Baetjer & Howard in Baltimore. � Copyright 2000 Mealey Publications, Inc.

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