A federal court in North Carolina recently ruled in favor of Oprah Winfrey against an author who argued that Winfrey’s TV series “Greenleaf” infringed copyrighted elements in her memoir, “From the Green Leaf to Greener Pastures.” Winfrey successfully obtained summary judgment against the author, Freda Day, which resulted in the dismissal of Day’s case. In other words, the judge found that a jury would have no reasonable basis to find Winfrey liable.
This copyright case failed on two key grounds under the law. First, to establish liability, Day needed to show that Winfrey plausibly could have had access to her memoir. Day claimed that she sent “From the Green Leaf to Greener Pastures” to the Oprah Winfrey Network by certified mail in 2009. However, the network was not located at the address to which she sent the book. The network also showed that they maintained a policy of returning outside submissions unopened. In any event, Winfrey did not create “Greenleaf.” Day failed to serve the lawsuit to the individual creator of the show. However, the creator still provided an affidavit stating that he had never heard of her memoir.
Second, the judge ruled that the show and the memoir did not meet the substantial similarity test required to prove infringement. Day argued that the plot of her memoir involved elements such as scandalous relationships, marital problems, abortion, poverty, and faith in God. However, these elements are general ideas and broad themes that are not copyrightable. Nor do they resemble the plot of “Greenleaf,” which revolves around intrigues and mysteries in a wealthy family. The judge also compared the characters, theme, mood, setting, pace, sequence, and dialogue of each work, finding no meaningful similarities in any of these areas that involved copyrightable material. In addition to a lack of access, therefore, the judge found a lack of substantial similarity between the allegedly infringed and infringing works.
This was not the first time that a copyright infringement action involving “Greenleaf” has failed. In 2018, a plaintiff also alleged infringement involving the TV series, but they eventually dropped the case.
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