Time Warp: September 1, 1988 (The A-Team)

Posted by Ken Davidson on Sep 1st, 2010

On this day in 1988, the Ninth Circuit held that “The A-Team” did not infringe the copyright of a television series pilot. In Olson v. National Broadcasting Company, Inc., the court considered whether the hit television show “The A-Team” was substantially similar to a TV pilot called “Cargo.” As described in previous posts, a two-part test is used to determine whether a work is substantially similar to another: the subjective “intrinsic test” and the objective “extrinsic test.” The intrinsic test looks at the concept and feel of the works as a whole. The extrinsic test compares plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters, and sequence of events.

The court acknowledged that both “Cargo” and “The A-Team” shared a common idea: “Both are a group action-adventure series designed to show Vietnam veterans in a positive light.” However, mere ideas are not protectable under copyright law, and the the extrinsic test “looks beyond the vague, abstracted idea of a general plot.” The court found similarities between the pace, characters, and mood. Both shows were quick-paced and comic in nature. But the court noted that these characteristics are common among action-adventure shows. The court also found similarities between the characters, but noted that the “Cargo” characters were not protectable because the characters were not developed or distinctive enough. The court found little similarity between the two works in terms of plot, sequence, dialogue or setting.

The court further held that there was no substantial similarity under the intrinsic test because all similarities that did exist between the two shows existed from unprotectable scenes a faire.


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