TMZ Settles Lawsuit Over Leaked Interview of Michael Jackson's Ex-Wife (Exclusive)

TMZ has settled a lawsuit with a producer who formerly worked for the late pop star Michael Jackson over claims that the site broadcast allegedly stolen, confidential and copyrighted footage of an interview with Debbie Rowe soon after her ex-husband died.

In 2003, Fox News' Geraldo at Large aired an interview with Rowe, who was married to Jackson between 1996 and 1999 and is the mother of two of his children.

The interview was produced by Marc Schaffel, an associate of Jackson's, whose production company scored the exclusive chat by signing a secret agreement with Jackson himself. Because of a confidentiality deal signed by Jackson and Rowe at the time of the divorce, Jackson had to personally release Rowe from her non-disclosure obligations, and he did so by turning to Schaffel, whom Jackson had reportedly hoped would produce a TV special that would act as a response to the allegations that Jackson had had an improper relationship with a young cancer survivor. (Later, that relationship deteriorated as Schaffel and Jackson sued each other, each claiming millions owed.)

The interview that aired on Geraldo, however, wasn't the good stuff.

Schaffel held back hours of unaired footage that might have been deemed more sensitive for Jackson.

After Michael Jackson was indicted for child molestation in December 2003, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff obtained and executed a search warrant on Schaffel's home and seized the interview. Two years later, the County Sheriff represented that he returned the property and hadn't released the "confidential outtakes" to anyone.

But after Jackson died, TMZ somehow got access to the footage and broadcast portions that included a conversation where Rowe talked about needing sedatives.
 
F. Marc Schaffel Prods sued TMZ for copyright infringement and conversion, estimating the outtakes to have a value of potentially millions of dollars. The financial details of TMZ's settlement aren't known. However, according to a statement by the parties, "TMZ denies Schaffel's allegations or that it has any liability to Schaffel whatsoever. TMZ does not, however, contest Schaffel's assertion of ownership of the copyright in the Rowe Interview."
 
Although Schaffel has resolved his case against TMZ, he continues litigation against Fox News, also alleged to have improperly aired portions of the Rowe interview. Fox News attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed on grounds that the footage constituted a transformative "fair use" (despite Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch's claims against the validity of such a legal doctrine), but last June, the judge in the case declined to rule on that matter at the preliminary stage.
 
Recently, Schaffel's battles with Fox News have turned extremely nasty, with attorneys for Fox accusing the plaintiff of perjury for misrepresenting attempts to contact the network about licensing, for being unresponsive to deposition requests, and for holding back documents relating to licensing agreements pertaining to the Rowe interview. The parties attempted to have a judge impose sanctions on one another for "cheating and deception," but so far the judge has turned down such motions.
 
The TMZ case is now over, leaving the big issue in the case -- the boundaries between an entertainment clip and a fair-use news product -- to be decided in the ongoing and definitely heated dispute between Schaffel and Fox News.
 
Eriq Gardner can be reached at eriqgardner@yahoo.com and can be followed on Twitter.
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