A federal judge in Florida will hear competing expert witnesses explain the finer points of Spanish telenovelas in a copyright legal battle between two Spanish-language TV networks. Telenovelas, a popular Spanish-language day-time drama similar to American soap operas, are at the center of a lawsuit between Latele Television, C.A. and Telemundo Communications Group, and Miami Federal Judge Jonathan Goodman has agreed to hear telenovela expert witnesses from both sides during trial.
Spanish-Language Channels Battle over Telenovela Similarities
Latele Television, copyright holder for Maria Maria filed the lawsuit against Telemundo for copying the show in its El Rostro de Analia. Maria Maria, which began its run in 1989, and El Rostro de Analia, which first aired in 2008, are both about a case of mistaken identity between two women who look alike. The plots, which both involve health doses of affairs, amnesia, love triangles, and illicit activity, arguably share similarities beyond the conventional soap opera elements, causing Latele Television to sue in an effort to collect royalties it argues Telemundo obtained by copying the 1989 show. Pointing out that the lead writer from Maria Maria is the same man responsible for the story in El Rostro de Analia, Latele argues that Telemundo’s recent version goes beyond the standard practice of borrowing story and plot elements from other telenovelas and enters the realm of copyright infringement.
Telenovela Expert Witnesses Set to Take Stand in Copyright Case
The Plaintiffs plan on using Dr. Tomas Lopez-Pumarejo, a Brooklyn College professor who has written a book on television serial dramas, as a telenovela expert witness. Dr. Lopez-Pumarejo conducted a literary analysis of both Spanish-language dramas and found what he called “substantial and striking similarities” between the two. During a Daubert hearing deciding which experts would be permitted to testify in the upcoming trial, Dr. Lopez-Pumarejo stated that the similarities between the two shows, “leaves – in my opinion – no doubt that [El Rostro de Analía] is a remake of [María María].”
In an effort to counter Dr. Lopez-Pumarejo, the Defendant has called as an expert witness Dr. Carolina Acosta-Alzuru. Dr. Acosta-Alzuru, who is a professor at the University of Georgia, has written a book on Venezuelan telenovelas and is prepared to testify that there are substantial differences between the two shows that refute a copyright claim. Dr. Acosta-Alzuru has said of the dissimilarities between El Rostro de Analia and Maria Maria, “in terms of core plot development, triangle structure, character design, telenovela subgenre, and qualitative characteristics of dialogue far outweigh the limited similarities in the triggering plot.”
In the early stages of the lawsuit, both parties submitted Daubert motions requesting the other’s expert witness be disallowed from participating in trial.
Federal Judge Admits Telenovela Expert Witnesses
Defendant Telemundo argued that Dr. Lopez-Pumarejo had not conducted sufficient investigation of the two shows before coming to his conclusion that they were similar. The Plaintiff’s expert witness watched 33 episodes of Maria Maria and 53 episodes of El Rostro de Analia to formulate his opinion, which only equates to 23% of the combined aired programming. Arguing that an expert who has only been exposed to less than a quarter of the material in question cannot possibly offer adequate commentary on the matter, Telemundo asked Judge Goodman to dismiss Dr. Lopez-Pumarejo before trial began.
In its own motion, the Plaintiff requested that Dr. Acosta-Alzuru be disqualified because her qualifications to comment on the issue were insufficient. Pointing out that Dr. Acosta-Alzuru is not a literary expert or a copyright infringement expert, Latele Television argued that she lacked the authority to come to an expert conclusion despite the fact that Dr. Acosta-Alzuru watched all 376 hours of aired content and wrote synopses of each episode of both shows.
In response to both motions, Judge Goodman found that both experts had passed the basic Daubert requirements of reliability necessary to admit expert testimony. Telling the parties that their complaints go to the weight of the expert testimony rather than the threshold question of admissibility, Judge Goodman determined that any weaknesses evident in the expert testimony should be exposed during trial for the jury to consider. As the telenovela copyright trial moves forward in the coming months both sides will not only be required to incorporate expert testimony into their argument, but also prepare to dismantle an opposing expert opinion during cross-examination.