US comedian Jerry Seinfeld was recently the subject of legal action, as a former colleague, Christian Charles, claimed to have pitched the original idea for the Netflix series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Charles claimed that he made the initial suggestion a decade before the show’s first episode aired.
Charles claimed his project, Two Stupid Guys in a Stupid Car Driving to a Stupid Town, was initially pitched to Seinfeld in 2002, as the pair had worked together since 1994. In fact, Charles directed the pilot for Comedians in Cars, however the pair’s relationship broke down due to a difference of opinion regarding Charles’ deserved compensation and credit.
Along with the claim that the idea for the show was his, Charles contended that he registered copyright protection for a treatment and script of a pilot episode. He further stated that he conducted meetings and had email conversations with Seinfeld’s representatives, prior to their difference of opinion regarding compensation after the pilot aired.
With the Netflix deal amassing $100 million, it’s fair to say that both parties had a considerable stake in the proceedings. Despite this, a Manhattan District judge, Alison Nathan, ruled in favor of Seinfeld as Charles had taken too long to sue, bringing him outside of the statute of limitations.
Shifting to a Canadian context, the primary legislation that governs copyright in Canada is the Copyright Act (the “Act”). Sections 3 and 27 of the Act states that an infringement occurs when any person does anything that only the copyright owner has the right to do. In relation to a work, this means the sole right to: (a) produce or reproduce the work or any substantial part thereof in any material form whatsoever; and (b) perform the work or any substantial part thereof in public or, if the work is unpublished, to publish the work or any substantial part thereof.
While a copyright infringement action may be filed by the owner of the copyright or its successor in title, the Act contains a three-year limitation period whereby the plaintiff knew or could have reasonably been expected to know of the act of infringement. US copyright law contains the same limitation period. As such, rather than focusing on the copyright claim, counsel for Seinfeld was able to direct the court towards this issue, as the plaintiff took at least double the limitation period (approximately seven years) to file an infringement action.
Counsel for the defense submitted that the plaintiff only sought legal action years later after finding out about the aforementioned deal with Netflix.
An important factor in the decision hinged on Seinfeld’s repudiation of Charles’ claim of copyright ownership. The facts of the case indicated Seinfeld rejected Charles’ request for backend compensation twice and made it clear that his only involvement was to be on a “work-for-hire” basis. The work-for-hire distinction is an important one in the context of copyright ownership, as the courts cited Wilson v Dynatone Publishing Co., which held that a defendant who “assert[ed] ownership as a work for hire would effectively repudiate the Plaintiffs’ claim” of copyright ownership.
In agreement, the court held, “Even if all inferences are drawn in favor of Charles, a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have understood that Seinfeld was repudiating any claim of ownership that Charles may have. That Seinfeld did not expressly claim ownership for himself during these conversations does not matter. It is sufficient that Charles’s claim was rejected.”
This rejection marked the initiation of the limitation period, as it was the fatal flaw in the infringement case. However, as the matter was decided on a limitation period argument, one is left to wonder how large a role, if any, Charles actually played in authoring the series.
The specificity of the lawsuit created some initial inclinations that Charles may have a viable claim, and, despite the potential for skepticism due to the final verdict resting on a technicality, the statute of limitations cannot be understood in this light. Rather, the limitation period is an important procedural safeguard put in place to allow for a balancing of protections around artistic expression, while ensuring this expression is not unduly restricted by overly burdensome confines.
Written by Jason Clarke, a third year JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School. Jason is also a Clinic Fellow at the Osgoode Innovation Clinic.