Copyright law protects the creations of “original works of authorship” like those in television, movies and theater productions. A high-profile copyright dispute between iconic comedian Jerry Seinfeld and long-time creative collaborator writer and director Christian Charles has likely ended in Seinfeld’s favor. On May 7, a federal appeals court affirmed the dismissal of Charles’ legal claims because he filed his copyright lawsuit too late.
Disagreement over ownership of the idea for “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”
The Seinfeld-Charles dispute concerns ownership of the idea – and therefore of the resulting copyright – for Seinfeld’s successful television show. According to the trial court decision, Charles alleges that he once suggested to Seinfeld a new television series around the idea of two people talking while driving. At that time, Charles wrote a treatment (brief written proposal of plot and characters) of the idea, but Seinfeld was not interested.
In 2011, years after Charles’ original suggestion, Seinfeld allegedly told him that he might create a talk show in which two comedians drive to a coffee shop to talk. Charles alleges that he reminded Seinfeld that this was his previous idea and that they agreed to collaborate on it, after which Charles wrote another treatment with the “look and feel” of the eventual “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” series. Charles alleges further that he then wrote a script, synopsis and camerashot list and that he and his production company produced the original pilot with the same name.
Charles alleges that at this point Seinfeld brought in another production company despite their “business understanding” that they would use Charles’ production company. When Charles asked for compensation and “backend involvement,” Seinfeld allegedly became upset that he would expect anything other than a work-for-hire role – implying that Seinfeld, believing he owned the idea, could hire Charles to provide related creative services.
The show became a successful series, but Charles’ involvement never materialized. Finally, in 2016, he decided that Seinfeld was not going to include him. He then registered a copyright in his treatment and filed the lawsuit against Seinfeld and his associates for copyright infringement.
Three-year statute of limitations
The federal Copyright Act includes a three-year statute of limitations (lawsuit filing deadline). The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed the lawsuit because Charles filed it more than three years after the ownership dispute arose.
The court explained that there is one point in time when a “reasonably diligent plaintiff” would be put on notice that someone disputes their copyright ownership in the expression of an idea. In this case, the court pointed to Seinfeld’s 2011 rejections of Charles’ requests for compensation and his response that he would only consider a work-for-hire arrangement, which implies that Seinfeld considered himself the owner. Seinfeld then went on to produce the show without providing any credit to Charles, another indication he did not acknowledge that Charles was an owner.
Because the ownership dispute was clear more than three years before Charles filed his suit, the court dismissed the case as late and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit agreed.
Be diligent in protecting your rights
This case illustrates the importance of timely asserting your copyright interests when you uncover evidence that another party does not recognize them. This is a question of fact unique to the particular dispute – the court explained that “any number of events can trigger the accrual of an ownership claim, including an express assertion of sole authorship or ownership.” Those involved in creative endeavors should remain alert to any indication that others question or challenge their copyright ownership.
(The trial court decision is available on Westlaw at 410 F.Supp.3d 656 and the 2nd Circuit summary order at 803 Fed.Appx. 550. From these decisions, the filings tab takes the user to several of the court filings in this matter, including the complaint.)