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Charles Harris and Unique Products and Services v. Oprah Winfrey and the Oprah Winfrey Show

March 18, 2011

CHARLES HARRIS AND UNIQUE PRODUCTS AND SERVICES, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
OPRAH WINFREY AND THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW, D/B/A HARPO PRODUCTIONS INC., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: DuBOIS, J.

MEMORANDUM

I. INTRODUCTION

This is a copyright infringement action in which the plaintiffs, Charles Harris and his company, Unique Products and Services, allege that Oprah Winfrey, individually and through her production company, Harpo Productions, infringed Harris's copyright in a booklet titled "How America Elects Her Presidents." The Complaint asserts a federal claim for copyright infringement under 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq. (Count I), and state law claims for tortious conversion (Count II), unjust enrichment (Count III), and quantum meruit (Count IV).

Presently before the Court are defendants' Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and Defendants' Motion for Rule 11 Sanctions. For the reasons that follow, the Court grants defendants' Motion to Dismiss, dismisses the Complaint with prejudice, and denies defendants' Motion for Rule 11 Sanctions.

II. BACKGROUND*fn1

Harris alleges that he holds a copyright in a booklet titled "How America Elects Her Presidents," an assembly of historical information relating to voting, elections, and presidential trivia. (Compl. Ex. 9; Defs.' Supplement to Mot. to Dismiss Ex. A.) As proof of Harris's copyright, plaintiffs attached as exhibits to the Complaint a Certificate of Registration from the U.S. Copyright Office dated January 6, 2000 for a work titled "How America Elects It's [sic] Presidents," and two acknowledgment letters received from the Democratic and Republican National Committees. (Compl. Exs. 1-3.) During Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, Harris allegedly sent ten copies of this booklet to The Oprah Winfrey Show, along with a letter stating that the booklet would be "a great addition to the campaign" and would "help people remember and to discuss Senator Obama." (Compl. Ex. 4.)

Plaintiffs allege that, on February 16, 2009, Winfrey read certain questions "verbatim" from Harris's booklet. (Compl. ¶ 19.) According to plaintiffs, Oprah had "developed" the contents of the February 16 episode based on Harris's booklet, (Compl. ¶ 20), and "copied questions" directly from his copyrighted material. (Compl. ¶ 21.) Plaintiffs attached to the Complaint a portion of the booklet with portraits and biographical facts, including a description of William Howard Taft as the "Heaviest President" at 354 pounds. (Compl. Ex. 9.)

On October 26, 2010, plaintiffs filed this action alleging copyright infringement under 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq., and state law claims of tortious conversion, unjust enrichment, and quantum meruit. (Compl. ¶¶ 24-46.) Defendants responded with a motion to dismiss, attaching a copy of the transcript from the episode at issue titled "Oprah's Search for the World's Smartest and Most Talented Kids." (Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss Ex. 1.) The transcript reveals that Oprah asked "little Graham," a six-year-old presidential history buff, "[W]hich one of our presidents weighed the most?" (Id. at 12.) Graham responded "William Howard Taft," and stated that Taft weighed 327 pounds. (Id.) While plainitffs contend that Winfrey also infringed Harris's copyright by posing questions based on various other presidential facts contained in the booklet (Compl. Ex. 8 at 3), these topics do not appear in the transcript. (Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss Ex. 1.)

Defendants supplemented their motion to dismiss on December 20, 2010, this time including a copy of Harris's copyrighted booklet obtained from the U.S. Trademark office. (Defs.' Supplement to Mot. to Dismiss Ex. A.) The material does not contain the pages Harris included as part of his original Complaint, although it does contain a table listing Taft as the heaviest President at 354 pounds. (Id. at 7.) This booklet, like plaintiffs' original submission, does not contain any material formatted as a question.

III. MOTION TO DISMISS

A. Legal Standard

Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that, in response to a pleading, a defense of "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted" may be raised by motion. In analyzing a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the Court "accept[s] all factual allegations as true, [and] construe[s] the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff . . . ." Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231, 233 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal quotations omitted).

"To survive a motion to dismiss, a civil plaintiff must allege facts that 'raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . .'" Victaulic Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 234 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). A complaint must contain "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. __, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). To satisfy the plausibility standard, a plaintiff's allegations must show that defendant's liability is more than "a sheer possibility." Id. "Where a complaint pleads facts that are 'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it 'stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

In Twombly, the Supreme Court utilized a "two-pronged approach," which it later formalized in Iqbal. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950; Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Under this approach, a district court first identifies those factual allegations that constitute nothing more than "legal conclusions" or "naked assertions." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557. Such allegations are "not entitled to the assumption of truth" and must be disregarded. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950. The court then assesses "the 'nub' of the ...


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