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In Jerry Seinfeld’s worldview, Christian Charles might be deemed a “low-talker,” someone who spoke too softly when Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee premiered back in 2012.
Charles alleges being the one who conceived of the idea for the series. While Seinfeld himself traces the concept to a cross-country road trip he took in 2000 with another comedian, there’s no dispute that Charles directed the pilot for Comedians in Cars. Now, Charles is holding up a copyright registration and suing Seinfeld with a range of claims. Seinfeld’s response: Too late.
On Friday, Seinfeld’s attorney Orin Snyder filed a motion to dismiss and emphasized that this dispute concerns ownership.
That’s important because while the Supreme Court has made it clear that copyright plaintiffs may sue anytime within three years of an infringement — and given that new episodes of Comedians in Cars are being produced, the infringement is arguably ongoing — there’s a harder limitations period applied to ownership claims.
“Plaintiff’s claims of being ‘the true creator-author behind the series,’ are the very allegations that make this case a dispute over ownership,” writes Snyder in the motion. “In response to Defendants’ original motion to dismiss, Plaintiff frivolously contorts the [First Amended Complaint] to make the head-scratching claim that there are two distinct Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee shows to try and recast the claim as one for an ongoing infringement. … Courts routinely dismiss this well-worn tactic — which is a tacit admission by Plaintiff that his claim is time-barred — to evade the statute of limitations.”
The case is now on a direction to explore the difference between an ownership claim and an infringement claim, with the parties discussing Charles’ allegations that he pitched the idea in 2002, wrote a treatment, and was eventually authorized to shoot something using the working title of Comedians in Cars Going for Coffee without Seinfeld’s creative input. Charles asserts obtaining a copyright registration on his work, preparing for five to six other episodes, and running into a fight over money.
Seinfeld says it doesn’t matter — that he has consistently and publicly claimed sole credit for creating the show — and that Charles was on notice about such repudiation.
This is a textbook case for applying the statute of limitations, he adds.
“Defendants do not dispute that Plaintiff had a role in directing the Pilot,” states the brief in support of dismissal. “This is not surprising, as all creative works that make their way to television require the contributions of numerous participants. … Nevertheless, the case law is littered with examples of creative participants coming out of the woodwork to claim copyright ownership of a creative work after it has achieved financial success. The Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations exists to ensure that any claims seeking ownership in a work are timely adjudicated, which ‘permits individuals to invest in the publication of copyrighted material without undue fear of litigation.’ Hardly an arbitrary obstacle, the statute of limitations furnishes the certainty and repose [that] are essential to the functioning of the copyright market. There must be certainty of copyright ownership and over the roles of artistic contributors to allow market participants to invest in a creative work, such as through licensing agreements and distribution deals. Here, SPT and Netflix signed deals with Mr. Seinfeld to stream the Show on their platforms and produce new episodes.”
Seinfeld’s court brief objects to a lawsuit that came only after Charles “learned” he was getting $750,000 per episode from Netflix. He further argues that the broad idea of comedians driving in a car to get coffee and engaging in comedic banter doesn’t rise to copyright protection and that Charles’ copyright registration was fraudulent.
“Defendant Comedians in Cars, LLC, an entity controlled by Mr. Seinfeld, obtained a copyright registration for the first episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee on September 8, 2016,” states the motion. “Ten days later, Plaintiff fraudulently obtained a copyright registration for the ‘Treatment’ of ‘COMEDIANS IN CARS GOING FOR COFFEE’ (with an alternate title: ‘COMEDIANS IN CARS GETTING COFFEE’), listing himself as the sole author. There is no doubt the change in the Show’s title (‘going for’ as opposed to ‘getting’) was designed to mislead the Copyright Office into registering a copyright that directly conflicted with the one Mr. Seinfeld obtained.”
Snyder also makes the argument for the first time that Charles has released claims related to the show from old email messages pertaining to a dispute over expenses for the pilot.
But the case really figures to turn on the issue of infringement vs. ownership. Not only is Seinfeld asking the court to declare Charles’ copyright claim as time-barred, the comedian urges the judge to see the other claims in the lawsuit — breach of implied contract, unfair competition, quantum meruit — as disguised ownership claims preempted by copyright law.
Charles is now due for a response, but before he does so, he may need to find a new lawyer. Last week, Brian Siff at Duane Morris, the attorney who handled the amended complaint for Charles, sought to withdraw over an undisclosed business conflict.
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