Beyoncé’s Lemonade left a sour taste in at least one person’s mouth. Matthew Fulks, a Louisville-based filmmaker and creative director at the WDRB Kentucky news station, is taking the singer to court for copyright infringement. The plaintiff claims that Lemonade, Beyoncé’s trailer for her latest album, copies “visual and sonic elements” from his short-film “Palinoia.”
Fulk was allegedly approached by MS MR, a group signed to Columbia/Sony Records and therefore under the same label as Beyoncé, to direct one of their new videos. According to the filmmaker, Palinoia was then sent to multiple individuals working for the label, including Bryan Younce, senior vice-president for video production at Columbia Records. Younce, who had previously made videos for Beyoncé, asked for Fulk’s email five months before work on the Lemonade trailer began. He later asked the plaintiff for story boards and a development plan for the record label. The filmmaker claims that the access to his work explains “the number of aesthetic decisions in […] Palinoia […] that are parroted in [the] Lemonade trailer.”
How strong is Fulk’s case?
Like many copyright infringement cases, the outcome of this lawsuit will mainly depend on where the line between influence and copying is drawn. According to U.S. copyright law, the following must be proven in order to establish infringement: (1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original. Proof of copying consists in two elements: (1) evidence of access to the plaintiff’s work and (2) probative similarities between the works. More importantly, the law only protects expressions and not ideas themselves.
While some might be more skeptical about Fulk’s chances of winning this lawsuit, the filmmaker seems to have, at first sight, a strong case. In his complaint, the plaintiff mentions nine different instances where substantial similarities between the two works can be seen. These elements make up 39 seconds of a 65-second trailer. The mentioned resemblances, with the proof of access to Fulk’s work, allow the burden of proof to be shifted to the defendant who will then have “to rebut that presumption through proof of independent creation.”
However, when taking a closer look at both parties’ work, one could easily argue that some of the similarities Fulk mentions in his complaint lie within the scope of non-copyrightable elements. This lawsuit could therefore end up like one of the most recent and similar cases to Fulk’s: Hayuk v. Starbucks.
After being approached by the agency 72andSunny for a potential Starbucks campaign and eventually declining a deal, Maya Hayuk, a muralist known for her use of colorful geometric patterns, sued the chain, claiming that their new packaging shared too many similarities with her own work. A month later, her complaint was tossed out by the District Court in Manhattan. The judge ruled that “what the Plaintiff [had] described as the 'core' of her work in the aggregate, namely the use of overlapping colored rays, and colors and shapes, is tantamount to a set of unprotectable concepts or methods over which there can be no copyright monopoly conferred.” Ultimately, Hayuk’s work and creativity both rely on the use of “raw material” such as colors and geometric forms, which are part of the public domain. He later added that “the total concept and feel of the protectable expression of those ideas in the Hayuk Works and the expression of those ideas in the Frappuccino Works are not substantially similar.”
Unfortunately for Fulk, some of his claims do rely on the similarities between elements that might be deemed original. For instance, one of the nine scenes he mentioned include a shot of a person with their head down, next to graffiti. As mentioned previously, ideas cannot be protected under copyright law and showcasing a distressed character lying against a wall with their head down is most likely not original enough.
Fulk also mentions the similarity between the black-and-white title screens in both works. However, these screens have been used in multiple movies before (for instance, Dressed to Kill and Predator, just to name a few). Moreover, as colors and fonts are considered "raw material", Fulk’s title screens cannot be protected under copyright law.
As for more abstract similarities, the plaintiff's complaint mentions that both videos have a “heavy, dark and angst-laden” mood and that both works’ paces are “a rapid succession of short scenes or montage, interspersed with notable intermittent pauses through exaggeratedly slow scenes.” But just like for black-and-white title screens, “Palinoia” does not create a new genre. As some have previously pointed out, even some perfume commercials are filmed and put together in the same manner. Proving that the substantially similar elements between Fulk’s “Palinoia” and Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” trailer are protected under copyright law might therefore be harder than it seems.
A potential court decision could be very enlightening in regards to the current state of copyright law. Realistically, the chances of this lawsuit ever making it to court are fairly low - most cases like this are settled out of court - as they are with most cases involving visual arts.
Aicha Tohry is an IPilogue Editor and an Université de Montréal LLB holder.