Abdin v. CBS – Star Trek – The Second Circuit boldly goes where no court has gone before.

If you’re a Star Trek fan (is there anyone who isn’t a Star Trek fan?), you’ve probably already seen this.  But just in case you haven’t:

This copyright infringement case marks the latest lawsuit involving the iconic Star Trek series.  Since Star Trek premiered in September 1966, courts have wrestled with copyright and trademark lawsuits involving the television series.  Today, in the latest round of Star Trek-related litigation, we are asked to boldly go where no court has gone before and determine whether the television series Star Trek: Discovery (a recent addition to the Star Trek franchise) unlawfully infringed upon a game developer's videogame concept involving a tardigrade, a real life microscopic organism with the unique ability to survive in space.

In 2014, plaintiff-appellant Anas Osama Ibrahim Abdin submitted a version of his science fiction videogame to several online forums and websites (the “Videogame”).  The Videogame was initially introduced on May 8, 2014 under the name Epoch, before Abdin changed the name to Tardigrades on February 22, 2015. As the title of the Videogame suggests, the game featured a tardigrade –  traveling in space.  Two years later, on September 24, 2017, defendant-appellees CBS Broadcasting Inc., Netflix, Inc., CBS Corporation, and CBS Interactive, Inc. (“defendants”) premiered their latest installment in the Star Trek series, Star Trek: Discovery (“Discovery”). Discovery featured, in three episodes, a tardigrade named “Ripper” and followed the space adventures of its newest Starfleet crew.

Abdin brought this copyright infringement action alleging that in making Discovery, defendants copied elements of his Videogame, including not only the tardigrade, but the plot, mood, characters, and overall feel as well. For the reasons set forth below, we agree with the district court that Abdin failed to plausibly allege substantial similarity between his Videogame and Discovery.  Accordingly, the district court’s judgment dismissing his third amended complaint is AFFIRMED.

Abdin v. CBS Broadcasting Inc., https://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/a73d65c4-1ba4-41b8-b8f1-8f48949b74a4/5/doc/19-3160_opn.pdf#xml=https://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/a73d65c4-1ba4-41b8-b8f1-8f48949b74a4/5/hilite/ (2nd Cir. 8/17/2020).  This is a truly wonderful opinion, including lengthy and erudite discussions of tardigrades (with full-color photos); of Star Trek TOS and its spinoffs (with citations to law review articles!  Michael P. Scharf & Lawrence D. Roberts, The Interstellar Relations of the Federation: International Law and "Star Trek: The Next Generation," 25 U. Tol. L. Rev. 577 (1994), and Richard J. Peltz, On A Wagon Train to Afghanistan: Limitations on Star Trek's Prime Directive, 25 U. Ark. Little Rock L. Rev. (2003); and a deep dive into the three episodes of Star Trek: Discovery featuring the tardigrade, which the plaintiff claimed infringed on his copyrighted videogame concept.

My only regret is that, because the case was dismissed on the pleadings and consequently didn’t go to trial (not that I’m saying it should have!), we’ll never have a chance to read about expert testimony at trial.  What kinds of expert witnesses would the parties have used?  Science fiction writers?  Comparative literature experts?  William Shatner?  The possibilities are endless.  But then, Star Trek-related lawsuits are also endless (see footnote 1 on page 3 of the opinion), so hopefully Vident Partners will have a future opportunity to provide an expert for this important area of litigation.



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