Sid & Marty Krofft Television Productions, Inc. v. McDonald's Corp.

Citation196 USPQ 97,562 F.2d 1157
Decision Date12 October 1977
Docket NumberNos. 75-1203 and 75-1202,s. 75-1203 and 75-1202
PartiesSID & MARTY KROFFT TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS, INC. and Sid & Marty Krofft Productions, Inc., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. McDONALD'S CORPORATION and Needham, Harper & Steers, Inc., Defendants- Appellees. SID & MARTY KROFFT TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS, INC. and Sid & Marty Krofft Productions, Inc., Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. McDONALD'S CORPORATION and Needham, Harper & Steers, Inc., Defendants- Appellants.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)

Anthony E. Liebig, Lillick, McHose & Charles, Los Angeles, Cal., argued for McDonald's Corp. et al.

Melville B. Nimmer, Kaplan, Livingston, Goodwin, Berkowitz & Selvin, Bayard F. Berman and James P. Tierney, Beverly Hills, Cal., argued for Sid & Marty Krofft Television.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

Before CARTER, GOODWIN, and SNEED, Circuit Judges.

JAMES M. CARTER, Circuit Judge:

This is a copyright infringement action. Plaintiffs Sid and Marty Krofft Television Productions, Inc., and Sid and Marty Krofft Productions, Inc. were awarded $50,000.00 in their action against defendants McDonald's Corporation and Needham, Harper & Steers, Inc. Defendants were found to have infringed plaintiffs' "H. R. Pufnstuf" children's television show by the production of their "McDonaldland" television commercials.

Plaintiffs argue on appeal that the district court erred in awarding damages pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 101(b). They contend that the court should have ordered an accounting of profits by defendants or, alternatively, should have awarded statutory "in lieu" damages.

Defendants cross-appeal. They contend that their television commercials did not infringe upon plaintiffs' television series as a matter of law. To find infringement, they suggest, would abridge their first amendment rights. They also refute plaintiffs' contentions as to damages.

We believe that the district court's finding of infringement was not clearly erroneous, and see no merit to defendants' first amendment claims, We find, however, that the district court was in error in awarding damages. We therefore affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.


In 1968, Sid and Marty Krofft were approached by the NBC television network to create a children's television program for exhibition on Saturday morning. 1 The Kroffts spent the next year creating the H. R. Pufnstuf television show, which was introduced on NBC in September 1969. The series included several fanciful costumed characters, as well as a boy named Jimmy, who lived in a fantasyland called "Living Island," which was inhabited by moving trees and talking books. The television series became extremely popular and generated a line of H. R. Pufnstuf products and endorsements.

In early 1970, Marty Krofft, the President of both Krofft Television and Krofft Productions and producer of the show, was contacted by an executive from Needham, Harper & Steers, Inc., an advertising agency. He was told that Needham was attempting to get the advertising account of McDonald's hamburger restaurant chain and wanted to base a proposed campaign to McDonald's on the H. R. Pufnstuf characters. The executive wanted to know whether the Kroffts would be interested in working with Needham on a project of this type.

Needham and the Kroffts were in contact by telephone six or seven more times. By a letter dated August 31, 1970, Needham stated it was going forward with the idea of a McDonaldland advertising campaign based on the H. R. Pufnstuf series. It acknowledged the need to pay the Kroffts a fee for preparing artistic designs and engineering plans. Shortly thereafter, Marty Krofft telephoned Needham only to be told that the advertising campaign had been cancelled.

In fact, Needham had already been awarded McDonald's advertising account and was proceeding with the McDonaldland project. 2 Former employees of the Kroffts were hired to design and construct the costumes and sets for McDonaldland. Needham also hired the same voice expert who supplied all of the voices for the Pufnstuf characters to supply some of the voices for the McDonaldland characters. In January 1971, the first of the McDonaldland commercials was broadcast on network television. They continue to be broadcast.

Prior to the advent of the McDonaldland advertising campaign, plaintiffs had licensed the use of the H. R. Pufnstuf characters and elements to the manufacturers of toys, games, lunch boxes, and comic books. In addition, the H. R. Pufnstuf characters were featured in Kellogg's cereal commercials and used by the Ice Capades. After the McDonaldland campaign, which included the distribution of toys and games, plaintiffs were unable to obtain new licensing arrangements or extend existing ones. 3 In the case of the Ice Capades, the H. R. Pufnstuf characters were actually replaced by the McDonaldland characters.

Plaintiffs filed suit in September 1971. The complaint alleged, inter alia, that the McDonaldland advertising campaign infringed the copyrighted H. R. Pufnstuf television episodes as well as various copyrighted articles of Pufnstuf merchandise. 4 By way of relief, plaintiffs sought compensatory damages of $250,000, an order for an accounting of profits attributable to the infringements, or, in the alternative, statutory "in lieu" damages, as provided by 17 U.S.C. § 101(b). Prior to trial, the district court signed a Pre-Trial Conference Order that was "approved as to form and content" by counsel for both sides. It provided that "(t)he prayer for relief raises issues of injunctive relief and an accounting which are questions for the Court."

The three week jury trial began on November 27, 1973. The jurors were shown for their consideration on the question of infringement: (1) two H. R. Pufnstuf television episodes; (2) various items of H. R. Pufnstuf merchandise, such as toys, games, and comic books; (3) several 30 and 60 second McDonaldland television commercials; and (4) various items of McDonaldland merchandise distributed by McDonald's, such as toys and puzzles. The jury was instructed that it was not to consider defendants' profits in determining damages, but could consider the value of use by the defendants of plaintiffs' work.

A verdict in favor of plaintiffs was returned and damages of $50,000.00 assessed. After the verdict, the parties briefed the question of whether plaintiffs were entitled to additional monetary recovery in the form of profits or statutory "in lieu" damages. The district court denied plaintiffs' claim for such relief. The court found that these matters were properly for the jury to consider so that it would not exercise its discretion in hearing further evidence. These appeals followed.

Proof of Infringement

It has often been said that in order to establish copyright infringement a plaintiff must prove ownership of the copyright and "copying" by the defendant. See, e. g., Reyher v. Children's Television Workshop, 533 F.2d 87, 90 (2 Cir. 1976); Universal Athletic Sales Co. v. Salkeld, 511 F.2d 904, 907 (3 Cir. 1975); 2 M. Nimmer on Copyright § 141 at 610-11 (1976) (hereinafter "Nimmer"). "Copying," in turn, is said to be shown by circumstantial evidence of access to the copyrighted work and substantial similarity between the copyrighted work and defendant's work. Reyher v. Children's Television Workshop, supra, 533 F.2d at 90; 2 Nimmer § 141.2 at 613. But an analysis of the cases suggests that these statements frequently serve merely as boilerplate to copyright opinions.

Under such statements, infringement would be established upon proof of ownership, access, and substantial similarity. Application of this rule, however, would produce some untenable results. For example, a copyright could be obtained over a cheaply manufactured plaster statue of a nude. Since ownership of a copyright is established, subsequent manufacturers of statues of nudes would face the grave risk of being found to be infringers if their statues were substantially similar and access were shown. The burden of proof on the plaintiff would be minimal, since most statues of nudes would in all probability be substantially similar to the cheaply manufactured plaster one. 5

Clearly the scope of copyright protection does not go this far. A limiting principle is needed. This is provided by the classic distinction between an "idea" and the "expression" of that idea. It is an axiom of copyright law that the protection granted to a copyrighted work extends only to the particular expression of the idea and never to the idea itself. Mazer v. Stein, 347 U.S. 201, 217-18, 74 S.Ct. 460, 98 L.Ed. 630 (1954); Baker v. Selden, 101 U.S. 99, 102-03, 25 L.Ed. 841 (1879). This principle attempts to reconcile two competing social interests: rewarding an individual's creativity and effort while at the same time permitting the nation to enjoy the benefits and progress from use of the same subject matter.

The real task in a copyright infringement action, then, is to determine whether there has been copying of the expression of an idea rather than just the idea itself. "(N)o one infringes, unless he descends so far into what is concrete (in a work) as to invade . . . (its) expression." National Comics Publications v. Fawcett Publications, 191 F.2d 594, 600 (2 Cir. 1951). Only this expression may be protected and only it may be infringed. 6

The difficulty comes in attempting to distill the unprotected idea from the protected expression. No court or commentator in making this search has been able to improve upon Judge Learned Hand's famous "abstractions test" articulated in Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corporation, 45 F.2d 119 (2 Cir. 1930), cert. denied, 282 U.S. 902, 51 S.Ct. 216, 75 L.Ed. 795 (1931):

"Upon any work, and especially upon a play, a great number of patterns of increasing generality will fit equally...

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