A blog about patent, copyright and trademark law in the U.S. District Court
for the Southern District of New York

Court Grants Copyright Ownership to the Plaintiff and Awards Attorneys' Fees

In a September 30, 2013 ruling, Judge Richard J. Sullivan granted summary judgment and attorneys' fees to plaintiff 16 Casa Duse, LLC in its copyright declaratory judgment action against defendant Alex Merkin over the ownership of the copyright in the short film entitled "Heads Up."  The plaintiff purchased all rights to the screenplay for the film, and then assembled a cast and crew.  Every member of the cast and crew, except Merkin, the director, signed agreements specifically assigning all intellectual property rights to the plaintiff.  After a director's cut of the film had been completed, a dispute about copyright ownership developed between the plaintiff and Merkin.  When the parties' relationship completely broke down, Merkin obtained a copyright registration in the director's cut of the film, listing his authorship as "direction/director."  Plaintiff commenced this action, and its amended complaint asserted, among other claims, declaratory judgments that the plaintiff is not liable for copyright infringement and that Merkin has no ownership in any copyright to the film, and to invalidate Merkin's registration.  Merkin counterclaimed with various declaratory judgment claims relating to the copyright issues.  Both parties moved for summary judgment.

Judge Sullivan easily disposed of the plaintiff's claim of non-liability for copyright infringement, ruling that the plaintiff was -- at the very least -- a joint author of the work, so the plaintiff could not "be liable for copyright infringement because co-authors each own an undivided interest in the work." 

The Court next considered whether the plaintiff was the sole or co-author of the work under the Second Circuit's two-pronged test which looks at whether "'each of the putative co-authors (1) made independently copyrightable contributions to the work; and (2) fully intended to be co-authors.'"  Regarding the first prong, Judge Sullivan found that the plaintiff did "not contest that Merkin made independently copyrightable contributions to the Film."  Judge Sullivan, however, strongly found against Merkin on the second prong, finding that "the record uniformly establishes that Plaintiff, through its principal, . . . never intended to share authorship of the film with Merkin or anyone else." 

The Court concluded the plaintiff "is entitled to a declaratory judgment that Merkin holds no copyright ownership interest in the Film."  Judge Sullivan rejected Merkin's counterclaims based largely on the conclusion that Merkin has no copyright interest in the film, and likewise invalidated Merkin's registration in the director's cut to the film that Merkin had obtained.

Judge Sullivan awarded the plaintiff its attorneys fees under 17 U.S.C. § 505, finding that "this entire suit arises from Merkin's utter failure to understand several basic tenets of copyright law."  The Court awarded fees against Merkin's counsel under 18 U.S.C. § 1927 based on the same frivolous positions.
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