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SCOTUS Sides with Oprah in Copyright Case Over Idea for TV Series

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey

A copyright lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey claiming she stole the idea for a television series will not go forward after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case on Monday.

In 2019, teacher and writer Freda J. Day sued Winfrey, Harpo Productions, Oprah Winfrey Network, Lions Gate Entertainment and writer-producer Craig Wright. The complaint began:

In retrospect to the “me too” movement, Hollywood as victimized the works of hardworking authors, writers, and creators. Thus has been the case in Oprah’s Winfrey [sic] production of the “Greenleaf” tv series. Those individuals in Hollywood that are in power, or privy to the industry due to their established statuses have stolen, misappropriated, and exploited the works of those that have not be [sic] fortunate to promote the industry due to lack of networking ability, money, or prestige.

Day went on to allege that both the title and the plot of Greenleaf copied from her memoir From the Greenleaf to Greener Pastures.

A federal judge, however, dismissed the case after finding that Wright “never saw, read, or even heard of” Day’s book prior to her lawsuit. In a 19-page opinion dismissing Day’s lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Max O. Cogburn noted major thematic differences between Day’s book and Winfrey’s TV series.

“The book is an autobiography, spanning 40 years, from 1960 to 1999, of a woman living and then overcoming a life of hardship and abuse,” Cogburn wrote. By contrast, he continued, the TV series “is a contemporary drama about an African-American church, its Bishop, and his adult children, who live a life of luxury and wealth, and the quest of the main character to prove that her uncle is a serial child molester.”

Cogburn dismissed the case at the district court level, and Day appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit agreed, affirming Cogburn’s dismissal. In the panel’s order, it specifically noted that there was no need for oral argument, because facts and argument had already been adequately presented in the written materials.

Day petitioned for a rehearing by the full Fourth Circuit, but that bid was denied in July 2022. Finally, Day sought the assistance of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court denied certiorari in the case without comment on Monday, thereby finalizing the dismissal.

Day told Law&Crime in an email that SCOTUS’ ruling “comes as no surprise.”

[Photo by 2020 Global Citizen Prize/Getty Images for Global Citizen]

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos