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CBS Beats Copyright Claims Over Star Trek: Discovery (Corrected)

Aug. 17, 2020, 2:49 PM; Updated: Aug. 19, 2020, 12:45 PM

A story arc about a giant tardigrade in “Star Trek: Discovery” didn’t infringe a copyright in an unreleased video game that also featured a giant tardigrade, the Second Circuit affirmed Monday.

Many elements of the work that CBS Broadcasting Corp. and Netflix Corp. allegedly infringed covered uncopyrightable scientific facts and ideas about tardigrades, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said.

Anas Osama Ibrahim Abdin owns a copyright in the “distillation” of the concept for his video game “Tardigrades,” a compilation of images, descriptions, and illustrations detailing the game’s characters and backstory. It features a space-station botanist who travels through space after being absorbed into a giant tardigrade, based on the real-life microscopic creature that can endure extreme heat, cold, pressure, and radiation.

Three episodes in the first season of CBS’ “Star Trek: Discovery” also involve a space encounter with a massive tardigrade-like creature, and Abdin sued CBS for copyright infringement in Manhattan federal court. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed Abdin’s claims in September.

The Second Circuit affirmed that CBS and Netflix—which is licensed to air “Discovery” outside of the U.S.—didn’t infringe because the works aren’t substantially similar. Abdin’s use of tardigrades largely wasn’t copyrightable, the court said.

“Abdin’s space-traveling tardigrade is an unprotectable idea because it is a generalized expression of a scientific fact—namely, the known ability of a tardigrade to survive in space,” the court said. “By permitting Abdin to exclusively own the idea of a space-traveling tardigrade, this Court would improperly withdraw that idea from the public domain and stifle creativity naturally flowing from the scientific fact that tardigrades can survive the vacuum of space.”

There was also no substantial similarity based on the original parts of Abdin’s work that might have been protected, including its “tardigrade-human interaction.” Although the tardigrades had some similarities, they also had significant differences. The creatures were used to travel through space in different ways and had different coloring, among other things. And “most significantly,” the court said it was unclear what role Abdin’s tardigrade would play in the video game, while Star Trek’s was at the center of a fully developed story.

The court also said elements of Abdin’s work were uncopyrightable stock themes from science fiction, including space travel and alien encounters.

The human characters in the works also shared only “general and undeveloped similarities” and had significant differences, the court said, and the works had a different overall concept and feel.

Judge Denny Chin wrote the opinion, joined by Judge Susan L. Carney and Judge Kari A. Dooley sitting by designation.

Allan Chan & Associates represented Abdin. Loeb & Loeb LLP represented CBS.

The case is Abdin v. CBS Broad. Inc., 2d Cir., No. 19-3160, 8/17/20.

(Corrects spelling of Abdin's name in grafs 7, 8, 11)

To contact the reporter on this story: Blake Brittain in Washington at bbrittain@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Patrick L. Gregory at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com

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