'Timeless' Lawsuit Survives Motion to Dismiss

While copyright plaintiffs often don't clear this legal hurdle, the ruling isn't all bad news for Sony and NBC.
Joe Lederer/NBC
'Timeless'

As Timeless fans gear up for the first-season finale, a lawsuit alleging the freshman NBC series is a rip-off of a Spanish-language show is continuing on to another round, after a California federal judge on Tuesday denied a motion to dismiss the suit.

Onza Partners sued Sony and NBC in September, claiming legitimate negotiations to create a U.S. version of El Ministerio del Tiempo fell apart right before the network announced an unauthorized copycat series.

While copyright plaintiffs often don't survive the motion-to-dismiss stage, the ruling isn't all bad news for Sony and NBC.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson found the issue of substantial similarity is "better suited" for summary judgment. When considering a motion to dismiss, the court assumes the plaintiffs' factual allegations are true — but, if Sony and NBC move for summary judgment, Onza will face the extrinsic test for similarity which is typically a tough hurdle for plaintiffs to clear. The court also will consider if any elements that are found to be similar are protectable by copyright or if they're scenes a faire in the sci-fi genre, as defendants have argued.

The more interesting portion of Wilson's decision centers on Onza's implied contract claim.

To bolster its motion to dismiss that claim, Sony turned to a previous court victory in a lawsuit over the 2012 film Premium Rush. In that case, author Joe Quirk pursued an implied contract claim against Sony for allegedly using his 1998 novel without compensation. U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg ruled in the studio's favor, finding that an author who widely publishes a book is like a man who blurts out an idea. The man can't later expect to bargain for payment of that idea.

Sony tried to apply a similar legal theory here, arguing that something widely disseminated to the public via television was effectively "blurted out" — but the argument didn't work this time.

Wilson's chief distinction between Quirk's case and Onza's is that the author had a deal with one studio to adapt his book into a film and a different studio later made the movie without his involvement or permission.

"Plaintiff in this case, unlike Quirk, alleges it was in contractual negotiations with Defendants specifically, which proceeded to such a point that a licensing offer was made by Defendants," writes Wilson, noting that the "blurted out" defense only works if Timeless had been created without any communication with Onza. 

Onza is represented by Devin McRae and Michael Smarinsky of Early Sullivan. Sony and NBC are represented by Louis Petrich and Edward Ruttenberg of Leopold, Petrich & Smith.

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