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Ninth Circuit revives copyright suit over Apple series ‘Servant’

The appellate court said the judge was too quick to rule that, as a matter of law, there were no substantial similarities.

PASADENA, Calif. (CN) — The Ninth Circuit on Tuesday reinstated a copyright lawsuit against Apple claiming the first three episodes of its "Servant" psychological horror series are a "wholesale copy" of a 2013 feature film.

The appellate panel overturned a federal judge's finding of no substantial similarities, as far as copyrightable elements were concerned, between the movie "The Truth About Emanuel" and the Apple TV+ series. The judge, according to the panel, had been too quick to dismiss the lawsuit because "reasonable minds" could differ on the question whether the works are substantially similar.

"In particular, expert testimony would aid the court in objectively evaluating similarities in cinematic techniques, distinguishing creative elements from scènes à faire, determining the extent and qualitative importance of similar elements between the works, and comparing works in the different mediums of film and television," the panel said.

Filmmaker Francesca Gregorini sued Apple in 2020. Her 2013 thriller involves a troubled teenager who becomes the babysitter for a new neighbor only to discover that the baby she's supposed to care for is a doll. Apple's "Servant," with "The Sixth Sense" director M. Night Shyamalan as executive producer and now in its third season, is about a couple who hire a teenage babysitter to look after their baby, which also turns out to be a doll.

U.S. District Judge John Walter in Los Angeles threw out the lawsuit saying that although "Emanuel" and the first three episodes of "Servant" share a basic plot premise, they tell completely different stories. Walter found that while "Emanuel'" follows a normal teenager struggling to cope with the guilt of knowing that her mother died at childbirth, "Servant" focuses on a deeply religious and perhaps paranormal nanny who possibly brings a doll to life.

"The vast differences between the plots of the two works are not surprising given that each plot is driven by a dissimilar 'inciting event' or 'catalyst,'" Walter said. "In 'Emanuel,' the inciting event (and unexpected twist) occurs when the audience learns that the baby is not real, but rather is an ultra-realistic doll. In sharp contrast, 'Servant’s' inciting event is not that the baby is an ultra-realistic doll, but that the doll seemingly comes to life."

Walter also awarded Apple $162,000 in attorneys fees, finding Gregorini's copyright infringement claims "objectively unreasonable."

On appeal, Gregorini argued it is practically unheard of for a judge to throw out a copyright infringement lawsuit on a motion to dismiss because of a purported lack of substantial similarity.

"It’s simply bizarre that the district court suggests that the works share no plot similarities beyond the basic premise of 'a mother so traumatized by her baby’s death that she cares for a doll she believes to be a real baby,'" the filmmaker claimed in her appellate brief.

Representatives of Apple didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the ruling.

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