Plagiarism in Pop Culture: American Auto

American Auto is an ongoing sitcom that tells the story of Payne Motors, a fictional Detroit-based automobile company that is trying to turn around its fortunes under a new CEO, even though she knows very little about cars.

The show has shown the team at Payne Motors working through, or attempting to work through, a wide variety of challenges. They include attempting to build a car that costs under $10,000, the challenges of choosing where to open a new factory and so forth.

However, in the seventh episode of season two, the team behind Payne Motors was confronted with a plagiarism issue, or rather, the fear of a potential plagiarism issue, that forces two members of the team to respond in comically inept ways.

But, just how realistic is this fear? That’s what we are taking a look at in this edition of Plagiarism in Pop Culture. 

Content Warning: Spoilers for Episode 7 of Season 2 of American Auto, entitled Young Designers.

The Plot

To be clear, the episode actually has three separate plots, two of which do not deal with plagiarism and aren’t relevant here. Instead, I’ll be focusing solely on the plagiarism storyline. 

The episode features the team from Payne Motors visiting a local elementary school to judge student car designs. Most of the student designs are what you would expect from kids, wildly impractical and cartoonish. However, that makes it all the more surprisingly when Cyrus sees that one of the students “designed” a car that was similar to one that he had been working on.

Cyrus sees the similar car

After awkwardly taking a photo of the design, Cyrus approaches Elliot Chisholm, the company’s lawyer asking if this was going to be a problem. Elliot at first mocks Cyrus, accusing him of “stealing a design” from a child.

Though Elliot clearly doesn’t believe Cyrus retroactive plagiarized a child, he says that he’ll throw the kid a few bucks and “make the problem go away.” Cyrus protests this, saying that it’s not right and that they were buying a design that he’s already designed and can prove as such.

However, Elliot says that this approach avoids an “embarrassing” lawsuit and both the expense and public relations issues that would come with accusations of either “plagiarizing” a child or coming up with a design a child could easily replicate.

Elliot then goes over to the child and his mother, where he, somewhat mockingly, offers to buy the design and give a “handcrafted certificate” and a check for $50 in exchange for the design. 

Though the two seem receptive at first, the mom recoils when presented with an official contract, wanting another student’s parent, who is a lawyer, to look at the contract first.

Tense negotiations unfolding on American Auto

Those negotiations do not apparently go well because, when we pick them back up, Elliot is offering $3,000 and an acknowledgement that the student is the creator of the car. This upsets Cyrus, who has an outburst and says the only reason they are there is so that he can’t sue “for a ton of money.”

This prompts the lawyer representing the child to say that $3,000 is low, and negotiations continue. When we reconnect with those negotiations, the new figure is $75,000 along with “full ownership”, appearance fees, picture rights and more. 

However, as Elliot is filling out the check, the student’s mom asked him how he came up with the idea. He said that he saw it in a comic book, which prompts Elliot to rip up the check and abruptly walk away from the table, wishing them well on their “future endeavors.”

This brings the plot line to a sudden end, as the episode then moves on to closing out the other two stories.

Understanding the Plagiarism

To be clear, no plagiarism actually took place in this episode. Cyrus, quite clearly, did not plagiarize this child and the story is more about the fear of a lawsuit related to an accusation of plagiarism rather than actual plagiarism.

The episode glosses over what specific type(s) of intellectual property is at issue. When looking at car designs, there are elements that can be covered under design patents, copyright and trademark/trade dress. So, this was probably a wise decision by the writers as the legal specifics would have likely bogged down the actual point of the story, which is the fear that Elliot, and to a lesser degree Cyrus, felt. 

And that fear is very real. While it’s safe to say the show exaggerated that fear for comedic effect, the fear of someone suing for intellectual property theft over a coincidental similarity is very common.

It’s a big part of why most book publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. It’s also a big part of why most record labels don’t accept unsolicited demos, and why film studios/producers will not read unsolicited scripts.

Lawsuits by lesser-known creators against the creators of popular works are incredibly common. Even at their simplest, these lawsuits are expensive and embarrassing for the defendants. However, defending against them often means proving that the defendant didn’t have access to the alleged original work.

We actually see this directly in a recent case involving The Weeknd. He was sued over allegations his 2018 song Call Out My Name was an infringement of an earlier work entitled VIbeking. The plaintiffs were able to prove that The Weeknd had access to Vibeking via a colleague and that he listened to it, saying that the track was “fire”. Rather than let the case go to trial, The Weeknd opted to reach a settlement with the plaintiffs, the terms of which are unknown.

Similarly, in this episode, there would be no challenge in proving that Payne Motors had access to the work. The company made the visit a press event, and there would be plenty of evidence Cyrus and other executives saw the design. Though Payne Motors could easily prove they were working on the design well before the event, that would likely come out later in the process and the case would still require a great deal of expense and, as Elliot suggested, be a PR nightmare.

Though, in the real world, such a lawsuit is unlikely for a variety of reasons. The biggest being that it is objectively silly to think a large car company stole an idea from a child. 

However, it is still the type of lawsuit that companies like Payne Motors do fear and do go to great lengths to avoid or mitigate. To that end, I could easily imagine a company like Payne trying to head off such a case at the event, though it more than likely would have been done by requiring the parents to sign waivers before their child attended the event.

Still, one of the jokes in American Auto is how incompetent everyone is in various ways. As such, maybe it is totally believable that they failed to do that and then Elliot simply overreacted when Cyrus spotted the similar design. 

It’s still outrageous, but closer to the (perceived) reality than many viewers of the show probably realize. 

Bottom Line

My favorite moment in the story is the very last one. When the kid reveals that he got the idea from a comic book and Elliot abruptly rips up the check and walks away. 

The entire story builds up perfectly to that moment, where the kid unwittingly reveals that he didn’t actually create the car (making himself a plagiarist) and doesn’t hold any rights to it. 

However, the episode doesn’t actually address the obvious next question: What about the comic book?

To be clear, Elliot was prepared to hand over $75,000 and “full ownership” of the IP to a child. Learning that the car is originally from a comic book may end the discussion with the kid, but it would seem to warrant at least looking into the comic book.

While the comic book creators would have to prove Cyrus or others at Payne had access to the work, if the comic is sufficiently popular, that should prove easy. It’s also unclear when the comic was printed, meaning that it could predate their actual design. While the artist would still have to prove that Cyrus’ car actually infringed their rights, if they were this worried about a child, it would seem like they should be more worried about a professional comic artist.

To that end, it seems like there is an untold second half to this story. If it does unfold, hopefully Elliot and Cyrus handle it better than the first half. Not that they could handle it much worse…

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