IP/Entertainment Law Weekly Case Update for Motion Picture Studios and Television Networks -- December 5, 2012


Table of Contents:

Radin v. Hunt, USCA Ninth Circuit, November 26, 2012 (unpublished opinion)
 Click here for a copy of the full decision.

  • Ninth Circuit affirms district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants Showtime Networks Inc. and Darlene Hunt on plaintiff’s copyright infringement claims, ruling that no reasonable jury could conclude either that defendants had access to plaintiff's screenplay or that the screenplay and defendants’ show The Big C were substantially similar.
Plaintiff Nancy Radin, author of a copyrighted screenplay titled Quality of Life, brought suit against Darlene Hunt, the writer and creator of the cable television series The Big C, and against Showtime Networks, which airs the show, alleging that the defendants, without authorization, created derivative works based on her screenplay and broadcast those works in violation of the Copyright Act. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants, in which the lower court found that that plaintiff could not establish any genuine issue of material fact as to defendants’ access to her copyrighted work during the relevant time. Specifically, the lower court concluded that plaintiff did not—and could not—legitimately assert that her screenplay was widely disseminated or that anyone associated with defendants had read her work, rejecting as “entirely speculative” and without evidence plaintiff’s chain-of-events theory of access—that her individual instructors in her screenwriting classes had compiled scenes she wrote (which she had submitted to each of them individually and which did not constitute the Quality of Life screenplay in its entirety) and they then passed these compilations, through unknown intermediaries, ultimately to defendant Hunt before she completed her pilot script. The district court also found that the two works were “far from strikingly similar,” noting that while some similarities existed between plaintiff’s screenplay and The Big C, none of the similar elements, alone, constituted a protectable, expressive element and that even the combination of these similarities was insufficient to establish a factual issue as to whether Hunt could have created The Big C only by copying Quality of Life. The Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court’s conclusions, finding that no reasonable jury could conclude either that defendants had access to plaintiff's work or that the two works are substantially similar—much less strikingly similar. The appeals court also affirmed the district court’s award of attorneys’ fees to defendants, finding that the lower court properly applied the Fogerty factors in determining that defendants were entitled to fees under the Copyright Act. Plaintiff had argued that defendants could not recover attorneys’ fees because Sony Pictures, which produces The Big C, was indemnifying defendants for their fees. The district court rejected the argument, noting that one entertainment company commonly indemnifies another in connection with a project in which each has played a role, that “it would be anomalous to deny defendants costs merely because plaintiff did not sue Sony Pictures as well as Hunt and Showtime” and that “[i]t would also give Plaintiff a windfall if she could avoid fees merely because defendants happened to be indemnified by Sony Pictures.” The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that no rule exists against awarding fees under the Copyright Act in cases in which a third party indemnifies a litigant’s legal expenses.

Kings Road Entertainment, Inc. v. West Coast Pictures, USDC C.D. California, November 26, 2012
 Click here for a copy of the full decision.

  • District court denies motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, concluding that dispute regarding co-authorship rights arises under the Copyright Act.
Plaintiff Kings Road Entertainment, Inc., brought suit against defendants West Coast Pictures, LLC, and others, seeking a declaration that defendants have no copyright interest in the motion picture All of Me under a Production Services Agreement allegedly transferring to plaintiff all interest in the film. Plaintiff alleged that, notwithstanding the provisions of the agreement and plaintiff’s rights under “applicable law,” defendants made claims to plaintiff and others asserting an ownership interest in the copyright. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that a dispute over the validity and interpretation of the agreement is merely a state court contractual issue and does not confer federal jurisdiction. The court denied defendants’ motion, holding that a dispute about defendants’ rights to co-ownership of the copyright for All of Me requires interpretation of the Copyright Act and plaintiff’s claim therefore arises under federal law.

The court initially addressed the import of the Declaratory Judgment Act. While the act permits a federal court to declare the rights and other legal relations of parties in a case of actual controversy, it does not confer federal jurisdiction. To bring an action in federal court under the Declaratory Judgment Act, plaintiff must have an independent jurisdictional basis. In determining whether plaintiff’s action “arises under” the Copyright Act and may be brought in federal court, the court applied the Ninth Circuit’s T.B. Harms test. Under the test, a district court shall exercise jurisdiction if: “(1) the complaint asks for a remedy expressly granted by the Copyright Act; (2) the complaint requires an interpretation of the Copyright Act; or (3) federal principles should control the claims.” Applying the T.B. Harms test, the court concluded, consistent with all federal circuit courts of appeal, that a determination of copyright ownership based on a disputed allegation of co-authorship requires an interpretation of the Copyright Act.

The court rejected defendants’ contention that the case must be litigated in state court because the complaint presents only a contractual dispute. Defendants argued that the only issue contained within plaintiff’s complaint is whether the Production Services Agreement assigned all interest to plaintiff, not defendants, and that a mere contract dispute is insufficient to confer federal jurisdiction. The court disagreed, noting that, contrary to defendants’ contention, the complaint alleges that “notwithstanding the provisions of the Production Services Agreement and plaintiff’s rights under applicable law,” defendants claimed ownership interest in the copyright. The “applicable law,” stated the court, is clearly the Copyright Act. Because a dispute over co-authorship of a motion picture (and therefore over ownership of the copyright) requires an interpretation of the Copyright Act, the court held that the case clearly arises under federal law.

For more information, please contact Jonathan Zavin at jzavin@loeb.com or at 212.407.4161.

Westlaw decisions are reprinted with permission of Thomson/West. If you wish to check the currency of these cases, you may do so using KeyCite on Westlaw by visiting http://www.westlaw.com/.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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