Protectable Elements in Horror Genre Parodies

Author of The Little White Trip: A Night in the Pines Sues Lionsgate and the Producers of The Cabin in the Woods for Copying Elements From His Novel in Their Horror Genre Parody.
June 16, 2015

The author of the 2006 novel The Little White Trip: A Night in the Pines, Peter Gallagher, recently filed a copyright infringement suit for $10 million against Lionsgate and the producers of the 2012 film The Cabin in the Woods.[1]  Gallagher alleges that the defendants copied his novel in making the film because both works tell a story of five friends who take a trip to a remote cabin in the woods where they are terrorized by the murdered previous inhabitants of the cabin and later learn that they are being filmed and manipulated by persons behind the scenes to create a real life horror show for the enjoyment of others.[2]  However, because the producers of The Cabin in the Woods deliberately pulled together common themes from horror films to create a horror genre parody[3], it will be difficult for the plaintiff to prove copyright infringement because copyright laws only protect expressions of ideas rather than ideas themselves or timeless themes such as those incorporated into the film[4].  Further, the plaintiff acknowledged in his complaint that both works “display a self-referential awareness of classic horror movie tropes.”[5]

To prove copyright infringement, Gallagher must demonstrate that the defendants accessed his novel and that they substantially copied protectable elements from his novel.[6]  Gallagher supports the first element in his complaint by stating that approximately 5,000 copies of his novel were sold between 2006 and 2007 in the Santa Monica and Venice Beach areas of California and that the novel was discussed on online blogs and social media. [7]  However, while the defendants currently reside and operate in that area, Lionsgate has argued that the plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that the producers read the novel.[8]

To determine whether the defendants substantially copied protectable elements from The Little White Trip, the judge will look at articulable similarities between the plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters, and sequence of events of the two works.[9]  The main similarities in the plaintiff’s complaint include that both works center around five friends (three males and two females) who are terrorized in a remote cabin in the woods. Subsequently, the friends are inadvertent characters in a real-life horror show and only one male and one female lead survive.[10]

In addition, there are several similarities between the two works which seem too similar to be coincidental and would likely be protectable.  These similarities include the name of the cabin, “Brinkley House” in the novel and “Buckner House” in the film, and the names of the two female leads, Julie and Dura in the novel and Jules and Dana in the film.[11]  On the other hand, the complaint also alleges similarities which are too insignificant to be considered protectable, such as the lead characters in both works taking “a vehicle to a remote cabin in the woods.”[12]  Because many of the similarities between the two works are derived from common horror genre themes, it is unlikely that Gallagher will succeed on a copyright infringement claim unless he can demonstrate that the producers of The Cabin in the Woods expressed these common ideas in a substantially similar way as they were expressed in The Little White Trip.

[1] Complaint, Gallagher v. Lions Gate Entm’t Inc., No. 2:15-cv-02739, (C.D. Cal. Apr. 13, 2015).

[2] Supra note 1, at 9.

[3] Gabriel Urbina, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ – Can You Copyright a Genre?, Mxdwn, (Apr. 21, 2015, 8:00 AM),

[4] Lloyd Jassin, When Does a Movie Infringe a Novel’s Copyright? The Thin Blue Line Between Permissible and Impermissible Copying, Copy Law,

[5] Supra note 1, at 9.

[6] Funky Films, Inc. v. Time Warner Entm't Co., L.P., 462 F.3d 1072, 1076 (9th Cir. 2006).

[7] Supra note 1, at 6-7.

[8] Matthew Bultman, Lions Gate Asks Judge to Slay ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ Suit, Law360, (May 19, 2015, 6:40 PM),

[9] Supra note 6, at 1077.

[10] Supra note 1, at 10.

[11] Supra note 1, at 11.

[12] Supra note 1, at 11.