The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a district court’s pleadings-stage determination that certain Star Trek: Discovery characters and plotlines did not infringe copyrighted elements of a video game because there was not substantial similarity between protectible elements of the video game and the Discovery episodes. Abdin v. CBS Broad. Inc., Case No. 19-3160 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 17, 2020) (Chin, J.).

Between 2014 and 2017, Plaintiff Abdin posted videos and draft designs online for his sci-fi video game, Tardigrade, a puzzle-based game in which the human protagonist can travel through outer space in the warm embrace of a gigantic blue tardigrade. Tardigrades, also known as water bears, are microscopic animals capable of withstanding extreme climates—including the harsh vacuum and radiation of space. After a 2007 research study confirmed tardigrades’ spacefaring abilities, they became somewhat of a pop culture phenomenon, being featured in numerous literary works and television shows. In June 2018, Abdin registered a copyright for a distillation of his video game concept.

In the latest installment of the Star Trek series, the 2017 season of Discovery features a three-episode storyline involving a creature called Ripper that resembles a giant tardigrade. The crew of the USS Enterprise realizes that Ripper is able to act as a type of supercomputer to improve the performance of their space traveling equipment (the DASH Drive).

Abdin filed suit for copyright infringement against CBS in August 2018, alleging that the Discovery creators copied aspects of his video game, including space-traveling tardigrades. CBS filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted by the district court. The district court concluded that Abdin’s video game was not substantially similar to Discovery. Abdin appealed.

The Second Circuit reviewed the lower court’s dismissal de novo and affirmed the district court’s dismissal, finding that Abdin failed to plausibly allege substantial similarity between protectible elements of his video game and the Discovery episodes. The Court first looked to the two elements of a copyright infringement claim: (1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original. The Court explained that to satisfy the second element, Abdin must demonstrate that CBS actually copied Abdin’s work, and that a substantial similarity exists between CBS’s work and the “protectible” elements of Abdin’s work.

The Second Circuit identified three elements of Abdin’s video game that were not protectible under copyright law: facts and ideas, scènes à faire and generic character traits. First, the Court found that the scientific facts relating to tardigrades’ survivability are not copyrightable, and that Abdin’s idea of tardigrades moving through space was also unprotectible. While noting the distinction between an idea and its expression is elusive, the Court explained that Abdin’s space-traveling tardigrade was merely a generalized expression of a scientific fact. Second, the Court looked to whether any of Abdin’s otherwise protectible expressions were unprotected scènes à faire—indispensable “stock themes” in a given genre. The Court explained that space travel, supernatural forces and alien encounters are all generic themes that [...]

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