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Jerry Seinfeld has prevailed in a lawsuit challenging who created Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. On Monday, a federal judge ruled that Christian Charles waited too long to go to court.
Charles worked with Seinfeld on several projects dating all the way back to 1994 and is also the credited director for the pilot of Comedians in Cars, which debuted on Sony’s Crackle in 2012 and is now distributed on Netflix.
According to the complaint that Charles filed in New York federal court, the genesis of the show dates to a conversation between himself and Seinfeld in 2011. Seinfeld allegedly explained that he was under pressure to come up with something new and brought up an idea about comedians driving in a car to a coffee place and just “chatting.” Charles says he pointed out that the suggestion was actually Charles’ Two Stupid Guys treatment for an idea that he had pitched to Seinfeld in 2002.
Charles and Seinfeld began working together on the pilot. According to Charles, Seinfeld had no creative input and he was not involved in hiring crew or location scouting.
Later, Charles says that Seinfeld’s reps were thrilled by what they saw, but as he began preparing new episodes, the two got into a dispute about compensation. Seinfeld allegedly became upset that Charles wanted more than a directing fee on a “work-for-hire” basis, and according to the complaint, called him “ungrateful.”
In response, Seinfeld’s attorney Orin Snyder focused on the statute of limitations. While the Supreme Court has made it clear that copyright plaintiffs may sue anytime within three years of an infringement, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has interpreted a harder limitations period when ownership is in the dispute. Here, Seinfeld argued that Charles was on notice of potential claims when his demand for backend compensation was rejected. According to the star comedian, Charles couldn’t merely wait to sue upon learning that Netflix was paying $750,000 an episode.
U.S. District Court Judge Alison Nathan agrees.
The principle issue in this case, she rules, is not whether Seinfeld illicitly copied Charles’ work, but rather whether his alleged contributions qualified him as an author.
The judge refuses to see Charles’ attempt to distinguish a controversy over “authorship” with one over “ownership.”
“Even if all inferences are drawn in favor of Charles, a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have understood that Seinfeld was repudiating any claim of ownership that Charles may have,” she writes. “That Seinfeld did not expressly claim ownership for himself during these conversations does not matter. It is sufficient that Charles’s claim was rejected.”
Commenting about Monday’s ruling, Snyder says, “Today’s victory is a complete vindication. Jerry created Comedians in Cars and this lawsuit was nothing but a money-grab seeking to capitalize on the success of the show. We are pleased that the Court saw through the noise and dismissed the case.”
Reacting to what he characterized as Snyder’s “overblown rhetoric,” Charles’s lawyer Peter Skolnik said, “The only ‘grab’ here was Jerry’s lawless grab of Christian’s work. Seinfeld’s only defense was statute of limitations, and Judge Nathan got that wrong. We are likely to appeal.”
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