Judge Rejects Lawsuit Alleging Fox's 'New Girl' Was Stolen From Two Writers

After two years of fighting, Fox, WME, Peter Chernin and showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether fend off copyright claims.
 FOX

Stephanie Counts and Shari Gold won't be moving into the creative house behind Fox's hit comedy New Girl.

Just before New Year's Day, a federal judge examined their allegations of how they shopped a proposed television series titled Square One, and how their script allegedly was plagiarized to create a sitcom starring Zooey Deschanel about a woman moving in with male roommates. On summary judgment, the judge decides that even though Counts and Gold had acknowledged contacts at the William Morris Endeavor talent agency, the copyright infringement claims aren't sufficient to bring the case to trial.

The lawsuit was filed in January 2014, and had an air of seriousness thanks to a theory about how the defendants, including industry titan Peter Chernin and New Girl showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether, had accessed the Square One script. The other defendants in the lawsuit were 21st Century Fox, WME, several of its agents and other television executives.

According to the plaintiffs, Counts had written her Square One script based on her own experience of moving into a three-man bachelor pad after discovering her husband having an affair. In 2008, the draft was shared with Holly Harter, an independent producer, who then gave it to WME partner Adam Venit. The Square One script was entered into WME's computer system and was given favorable coverage when reviewed. The plaintiffs also had conversations with another WME agent named David Karp.

In the lawsuit, Counts and Gold asserted that there was a reasonable chance the script was seen by Chernin and Meriwether because they were also represented by WME or because Meriwether met Karp at a cocktail party around the time New Girl was created.

Meriwether has denied stealing anything, and in fact, has submitted her own testimonial that New Girl was inspired by Three's Company and the British comedy Green Wing.

In a summary judgment opinion, U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson writes there's still too many holes in the theory of access to presume anything more than "bare corporate receipt" of the Square One script.

He notes "that plaintiffs may have interacted with a few agents at WME is insufficient to show that other agents had a reasonable opportunity to access Square One," and as far as a stronger link, more specificity is needed. For example, the fact that Chernin asked WME to provide him with scripts is deemed short of "evidence detailing the scope of this relationship" and the allegation that favorably covered scripts at WME are widely accessible by all agents isn't sufficiently supported by evidence or witnesses. Yes, the Square One script made into the WME computerized database, but Wilson notes, "This level of access does not rise to the degree of dissemination Plaintiffs assert occurred; rather, the record establishes that if Defendant Meriwether's or Defendant Chernin's agents ... wanted to access the script, they would have had to know at least some information about the screenplay they were searching for."

Wilson concludes that a reasonable jury couldn't infer access to Square One, though that doesn't end the analysis. Had the plaintiffs made a stronger showing on access, they'd bare less burden in showing substantial similarity. Since they didn't, the lawsuit fails for many of the reasons other copyright lawsuits against Hollywood studios fall short: The judge looks at the plot, sequence of events, characters, mood, pace, dialogue, setting and themes of the respective works, finding that many of the ideas expressed are general tropes not worthy of protection while also articulating differences that rule out substantial similarity.

As an example, take the characters of the works in question.

"Both Square One and New Girl have leading female characters in their 20s/30s," the judge writes. "Plaintiffs argue that both protagonists are optimistic, sexually inexperienced, feminine, have a hard time fitting in, attempt to cook and be domestic for their roommates, and use outdated phrases. As the Court stated above, most of these similarities are ordinary and cannot be afforded protection. Moreover, while [New Girl protagonist] Jess is overtly quirky, awkward and goofy in her personality, [Square One protagonist] Greer does not possess similarly distinctive qualities."

Here's the full opinion.

The defendants were represented by attorneys at Loeb & Loeb and Kinsella Weitzman.

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