Catch a Tiger by the Toe: How the Tiger King Got Caught (for Copyright Infringement)

Jaburg Wilk

Jaburg Wilk

Caution: Spoilers Ahead. Netflix’s wildly popular documentary series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness continues to capture the imagination of the public as countless media reports and a follow-up Netflix episode chronicle the various developments and characters featured in the show.

The true-crime drama highlights various legal missteps of “Tiger King” Joe Exotic, an eccentric big-cat breeder and owner of a private animal park in Oklahoma, in his escalating feud with Carol Baskin, the owner of a Florida animal sanctuary, culminating in a 22-year prison sentence for Exotic. The series concludes with Exotic’s conviction for solicitation of murder-for-hire and criminal animal abuse. But it was Baskin’s civil lawsuits—filed years prior—that marked the beginning of the end for Exotic.

The Copyright Lawsuit

In episode four of Tiger King, Exotic describes how he was sued for copyright infringement after posting a photograph of animal-sanctuary volunteers holding dead prey rabbits on social media and claiming the photograph evinced animal cruelty at the sanctuary. Exotic complained that Baskin did not take the photograph and did not even own the copyrights until she bought them for $5.00 just days before filing the lawsuit.

After a year-and-a-half of litigation, the court ruled in Baskin’s favor on summary judgment. The parties subsequently entered a consent judgment, awarding Baskin $50,000 in statutory damages. Although the judgment was not nearly as large as the contemporaneous judgment for trademark infringement, the sizable award was tacked on to Exotic’s bill to Baskin, ultimately exceeding $1,000,000. The combined judgments are portrayed as the precipitating event that ruins Exotic financially, causing him to spiral out of control.

Copyright Lessons Courtesy of the Tiger King

The depiction of the copyright lawsuit in the Tiger King highlights various principles of copyright law. These legal principles allowed Carol Baskin to obtain copyrights in a photograph she did not take or initially own and sue Exotic—and ultimately obtain a judgment against him.

Initially, the creator of an original work automatically obtains copyrights in the work upon creation. According to Baskin’s lawsuit, the photographer of the subject photograph was an individual by the name of Julie Hanan. Thus, Ms. Hanan owned the copyrights to the photo when she snapped the picture—not Baskin or her animal sanctuary.

But copyright ownership can be transferred, if done in writing and signed by the copyright owner. According to Baskin’s lawsuit, Ms. Hanan transferred her copyrights to the animal sanctuary by a signed agreement prior to the sanctuary’s lawsuit.

Importantly, copyrights must be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office before an infringement lawsuit can be filed. In addition to numerous benefits that accompany copyright registration, registration allows copyright owners to file a lawsuit to enforce their copyrights. In this case, the U.S. Copyright Office approved registration of the photograph just days before the lawsuit commenced, suggesting Baskin had to wait until registration was granted before she could file the lawsuit.

Although Baskin did not benefit from it in this case, in some cases, copyright owners can elect to recover statutory damages instead of having to prove actual injury from infringement. To qualify for statutory damages, the owner must register the copyrighted work either prior to its infringement or within three months of its initial publication. Baskin’s application to the U.S. Copyright Office indicates the photograph was taken in 2009 and initially published on April 25, 2010—more than a year before Baskin applied to register the photograph. Accordingly, Baskin was not entitled to statutory damages in the suit (though the consent judgment erroneously called the $50,000 award “statutory damages”).

Baskin would have been better positioned had she registered the photograph earlier and been eligible for statutory damages. But she likely was not anticipating Exotic’s actions and merely reacted to the opportunity when it presented itself. Thus, she was able to utilize basic copyright law to capitalize on Exotic’s missteps and prevail in yet a second lawsuit using intellectual property rights to depose the Tiger King.

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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