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GoDaddy Accuses the Film Academy of 'Gaming' the Judicial System

The lawsuit-happy organization that puts on the Academy Awards each year allegedly has a favorite judge whose daughter is an actress.

Oscar Statuette Generic Art - H 2013
Getty Images

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is famously litigious. Over the years, the Academy has filed dozens of lawsuits in the interest of protecting the trademarks surrounding its annual Oscars awards ceremony.

But no Academy lawsuit has been quite like the ongoing, massive cybersquatting case against GoDaddy. The domain registrar giant is accused of trafficking in unauthorized trademarks by allowing its customers to buy domains like Oscarbets.com, "park" that page and collect a portion of revenue from GoDaddy's advertising partners on a pay-per-click basis.

STORY: Hollywood's Top 10 Legal Disputes of 2013

The case is tentatively scheduled for a trial in July, but it has taken a wild detour.

In the past two weeks, GoDaddy has filed a blizzard of papers in the hopes of knocking U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins off the case. The defendant alleges that multiple Academy officials privately refer to Judge Collins as "the Academy's judge," and that she has become such a favorite of the Academy that when its lawsuit against GoDaddy was originally assigned to another judge, AMPAS had it moved.

"The reassignment of this case to Judge Collins continued a long and consistent pattern of ensuring that all trademark lawsuits filed by AMPAS since 1999 were reassigned to her -- twenty-five (25) such cases in the past fifteen (15) years," says GoDaddy in court papers. "This is not the result of mere coincidence."

It's at least true that the Academy has a notable and extensive history of filing lawsuits. In the past, the organization has targeted a chocolatier in North Hollywood who made chocolate Oscar figurines, the operator of the website "Oscarwatch," an Italian TV station trying to broadcast "The Wine Oscars," the heirs of Mary Pickford for selling her 1930 Oscar for best actress, a company trying to market a travel package to the Academy Awards, another company that rented oversized Oscar statuettes for parties, a man who sold an Oscar statuette on eBay, and more.

GoDaddy believes that the Academy is enamored with the treatment it gets from Judge Collins and has been "using the 'Notice of Related Case' process to game the system in order to allow AMPAS to have its cases reassigned to Judge Collins time and again."

The defendant even offers up a theory for the judge's alleged bias, saying, "As part of its investigation into the relationship between Judge Collins and AMPAS, GoDaddy discovered that Judge Collins’ daughter, Rachel Montez Collins, is a professional actress." (According to IMDb, Collins has had small parts in Deception, The Producers and other films.)

The Academy's lawsuit against GoDaddy over hundreds of domain names is arguably the biggest one that the plaintiff has ever pursued.

At a meeting between the parties in August 2012, one of the Academy's lawyers, David Quinto, allegedly stated that GoDaddy should know that Judge Collins "is the Academy's Judge," before another of its lawyers, Stuart Singer, offered an eight-figure number to settle the case. According to GoDaddy's court papers, "The presentation by Mr. Quinto and Mr. Singer clearly implied that either GoDaddy could reach an agreement with AMPAS at that time or Judge Collins would award a substantially higher judgment later."

Since then, the Academy has been winning. Most notably in June, Judge Collins rejected GoDaddy's summary judgment motion and ruled that the defendant isn't eligible for safe harbor. Later, the judge upset GoDaddy by allowing the Academy to use testimony from a consultant named Joe Presbrey, said to have created software programs designed to search for domain names with infringing trademarks. (The Academy reportedly failed to disclose his identity and work at first.)

With a trial around the corner, GoDaddy has good motivation to seek a do-over. The defendant, though, goes well beyond a mere reproach of Judge Collins' recent rulings and accuses her of advising the Academy to file a second lawsuit against GoDaddy (which happened in November) and already having determined an outcome in this one.

"In effect," says GoDaddy, "Judge Collins attempted to coerce GoDaddy into a settlement with AMPAS with veiled threats as to how she will ultimately rule in this case if GoDaddy refuses to settle with AMPAS. Although this case has been pending for more than three years, with various attempts at both formal and informal settlement, the parties have never been particularly close to settlement."

GoDaddy says it began its investigation in the judge after one of the opposing lawyers sent a letter to a GoDaddy investor touting that Judge Collins "has handled all the Academy's federal litigation for more than 15 years." Now, after discovering the judge's daughter and saying the judge "has been complicit in this misconduct," the defendant demands a recusal. Here's the inflammatory motion.

The motion to recuse the judge has been referred to another California federal judge.

Quinto handles most of the Academy's legal matters, but isn't representing them on this case because of a client conflict. Nevertheless, he has attended a settlement conference and is familiar with what's happening. In response to GoDaddy's motion, he tells THR that the Academy hasn't hidden anything and has adhered to the process by which to transfer cases. "Judges all over the Central District [of California] have approved transfers to Judge Collins, some more than once," he notes.

The attorney denies referring to Judge Collins as "the Academy's judge," saying he instead called her "the Academy judge" in order to "indicate that the judge has familiarity with the Academy's intellectual property and enforcement efforts."

Singer, who is primary counsel in the case, adds, "We believe that the GoDaddy motion is baseless and the fact they have waited several years to bring the motion, after losing partial summary judgment, speaks for itself."

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner