Judge dissects, discards a ‘Machete’ claim

Danny Trejo, a Los Angeles native with a troubled past, has transformed himself into a Hollywood franchise by portraying some mean hombres all too willing to dispense rough vigilantism. But a Utah federal judge, weighing in on a copyright infringement claim vaguely tied to Trejo’s first starring role, has shown how tough the real law can be on unsupported claims.

U.S. District Judge David Nuffer took a legal machete and whacked apart a lawsuit filed by filmmaker Gil Medina, claiming Univision and its El Rey Network  infringed on his 2006 indie movie Vengeance, which he wrote and filmed. It also was the first movie in which Trejeo starred as the lead.

Medina claimed that the broadcasters’ 2010 televising of Machete, a different movie also starring Trejo, infringed on his Vengeance copyright because the two works shared a similar plot and had the same star. No es cierto, the judge ruled.

Was there access?

Access to a work is critical to establish an infringement claim, and Medina’s suit relied on his assertion that this occurred when he said he provided a rough cut of  his Vengeance to film producer Robert Rodriguez in 2005. Rodriguez, who was not a defendant in Medina’s suit, examined the script and rough cut before telling the plaintiff he was uninterested in the work. In 2009, Rodriguez produced Machete.

Those facts were insufficient to support Medina’s suit, and Nuffer granted Univision’s motion to dismiss after cutting through the plaintiff’s arguments under the two-prong test to establish copying as a critical element in an infringement case.

The judge found that broadcasters had no access to Medina’s film. Nuffer noted that Medina’s complaint expressly claimed just one instance of direct access but it involved producer Rodriguez, not Univision or any of its broadcasting subsidiaries.

Medina also did not show, as he intimated, the possibility that the broadcasters had third-party access to infringe on his work. Citing Hofmann v. Pressman Toy Corp., Nuffer ruled that, in instances where parties make claims of third-party access, it cannot be inferred unless “the facts have shown [or the Complaint has alleged facts showing] that in virtually every detail the [two works] are identical.” This slashed Medina’s third-party theory , because he had fessed up that Vengeance was “re-shot and re-edited and otherwise modified” after Rodriguez viewed the rough cut.

Further, the court said that “even assuming” Rodriguez had access to Medina’s film or this could be imputed, this factor still would be “insignificant.” That’s because the filmmaker had failed to assert that Univision, not Rodriguez, “played any role in producing the Machete films,” thereby infringing on his work.

Striking similarities?

As for the other critical element in an infringement case, whether there were any legally striking similarities between Vengeance and Machete, Nuffer sliced, diced, and discarded this notion, too.

He said both films portrayed a former police officer looking for payback after the wrongful deaths of his family members. Both end with a scene between a priest and the protagonist. But copyright, the judge underscored, protects only the expression of an idea and not the idea itself. The similarities Medina cited were too general and standard in a film genre to be protected, and he failed to provide specifics to differentiate a protected expression of an idea, such as how the priest was dressed, how  characters act in unique ways, or how they speak (their dialogue) in distinctive fashion.

The judge has allowed Medina to resubmit an amended complaint.