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Even when plaintiffs raise an inference of use on an idea submission claim, the defendants may dispel that inference with evidence that conclusively demonstrates the defendants independently created their product. When the defendants produce evidence of independent creation that is clear, positive, uncontradicted, and of such a nature that it cannot rationally be disbelieved, the inference of use is dispelled as a matter of law. In such a case, it is appropriate to grant summary judgment on the plaintiffs' implied-in-fact contract claim on the ground that the use element has been negated by uncontroverted evidence of independent creation. This is all to say that an issue of fact regarding substantial similarity is not necessarily sufficient to overcome summary judgment when the defendants show as a matter of law that they independently created their product. In an idea submission case, similarities that do not result from copying are similarities without legal significance. In other words, similarity is no longer a material issue when the defendants show conclusively that they independently created their product.
Appellant writer brought an idea submission lawsuit against a television network for the network's alleged use of his ideas from a script he had submitted to the network in 1977 in its creation and development of a hit television series in 2003 and 2004. Appellant writer alleged breach of an implied-in-fact contract. The writer's theory of access was that the network's drama development executives who were involved in the creation of the series at issue had a reasonable opportunity to view his 1977 script because the network had a policy of permanently retaining unreturned scripts, and the script had to have been present somewhere in a script library at the network. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the network. The present appeal followed.
Did the trial court err in granting summary judgment in favor of the network?
The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment. The court found that, to the extent the writer had established any inference of use of his ideas by the network, the inference was not based on proof of access. The writer's evidence was insufficient as a matter of law, because he relied on a bare possibility of theoretical access premised on speculation, supposition, and guess work. However, even assuming that substantial similarity between the writer's 1977 script and the series gave rise to an inference of use, the evidence of creation independent of the writer's work was clear, positive, uncontradicted, and of such a nature that it could not rationally be disbelieved. The evidence included the sworn statements of the series' creators and contemporaneous correspondence documenting the creation process. The network had thus established the independent creation defense as a matter of law.