February 20, 2014 4:38pm PT by Eriq Gardner
BET Can't Shoot Down 'American Gangster' Lawsuit
A former bank robber, representing himself in court, has survived the first round of a $20.5 million lawsuit against BET, A&E, Netflix, Apple and others over an episode of American Gangster.
Charles "Chaz" Williams is the plaintiff, who besides robbing dozens of banks in the 1970s and once escaping prison, went onto found Black Hand Entertainment, whose roster included 50 Cent and Foxy Brown. Now, Williams has added to his illustrious career by doing something that even trained lawyers often fail at: Beating back a motion to dismiss in a copyright infringement lawsuit.
In March 2013, Williams filed a rather sloppy three-page "pro se" complaint in New York federal court. (Read here.) He alleged that BET Networks and A&E Television had each aired an American Gangster story entitled "Chaz Williams Armed & Dangerous." He alleged that Netflix had the episode in its system and that Apple and Amazon.com were retailing it.
That brought an attempt to defeat the lawsuit from the defendants who asserted that Williams failed to properly allege a claim for copyright infringement because the works at issue present historical facts that are not entitled to copyright protection.
"The Court disagrees," responds U.S. District Judge Joanna Seybert in a ruling.
Then quoting past judges who have historically ruled in similar cases, the judge continues: "Defendants are correct that 'historical fact is not copyrightable.' 'Moreover, because the retelling of history necessarily proceeds in a certain chronological order, an author cannot hold a copyright in the sequence of the story’s elements.' However, 'an author’s expression of historical facts is protected by the Copyright Act.'”
Williams gets saved by one hell of a smart move, if true. He may have drafted a sloppy lawsuit, but it appears about 15 years ago, he also authored a story treatment about his own life experiences and registered it with the Copyright Office and with the WGA. He also alleged that a film company had purchased his life story rights.
"Plaintiff’s opposition asserts that the 'copyright material' contains points of fiction created by Plaintiff -- theoretically embellishments of his true life story -- which Defendants included in the program," writes the judge.
Judge Seybert quickly adds that Williams will have "significant challenges" in winning the lawsuit -- he'll basically need to show that the defendants substantially copied his imagination, not his history -- but at very least, he gets past the first hurdle in his attempt to take $20.5 million from the defendants' bank accounts.