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Firooz Zahedi will always have a place in Hollywood history thanks to how he shot the iconic Pulp Fiction movie poster, but a judge has ruled that if the photographer claims ownership, he should have filed a lawsuit much sooner. He didn’t, and so Miramax has been granted summary judgment in a copyright battle over the poster image.
Zahedi, a noted photographer who has shot for many magazines and whose work has been in Los Angeles galleries, snapped Uma Thurman at his private studio on April 7, 1994, and sued Miramax for using the image on “untold thousands of consumer products.” The case ultimately came down to Zahedi’s long delay in bringing a legal claim. The crucial piece of evidence turned out a post that one of Zahedi’s relatives made six years ago on Instagram.
Miramax insisted that for Pulp Fiction, Zahedi worked under a work-for-hire agreement, but the studio couldn’t locate the documents that would prove it. The important thing, though, is that Zahedi’s complaint and Miramax’s defense presented a dispute over ownership. If ownership of the image wasn’t in contention and this were simply about Miramax’s continued use of Zahedi’s work, the photographer would have been able to sue over infringement in the past three years without deadline. But as District Judge Dolly Gee notes, “Where the gravamen of a claim is ownership, the statute of limitations will bar a claim if (1) the parties are in a close relationship and (2) there has been an ‘express repudiation’ of the plaintiff’s ownership claim.”
Back in the 1990s, when the movie came out, Miramax registered a copyright for the poster. The judge agrees with Zahedi here that this didn’t constitute a repudiation of Zahedi’s ownership claim “because Miramax’s copyright registration could plausibly be understood to cover only the poster, and not the underlying photograph.”
But the analysis doesn’t stop there.
In 2015, as uncovered by Miramax’s lawyers, Zahedi’s stepson posted a photograph of Zahedi holding a Mia Wallace action figure on Instagram, with the caption, “Happy Birthday to my Stepdad @fitzphoto [emojis] Turns out he didn’t get toy royalties for his famous photo of Uma TM… But at least he has the toy now…”
Zahedi commented, “Thanks… Sometimes it’s best to settle for the little things in life.”
Oops, this turned out to be a damning mistake.
“Zahedi’s receipt in 2015 of an action figure prominently featuring the iconic photo, bearing Miramax’s copyright notice, and failing to credit Zahedi is uncontroverted evidence of his actual knowledge of Miramax’s plain and express repudiation of his ownership,” writes Gee. “While it may be true that Miramax changed its position on its copyright claim over the decades since 1994—Zahedi is correct that Miramax credited Zahedi as the owner of the photograph on the cover of its 1994 script, and the record is not clear at what point Miramax stopped crediting Zahedi—it is clear that Zahedi understood in 2015 that Miramax claimed more rights in the photograph than Zahedi believed it had.”
Meaning, that if the clock started then, Zahedi’s window for filing suit closed in 2018.
The Supreme Court discussed statute of limitations for copyright claims in a 2014 decision involving Raging Bull rights but didn’t foreclose hard time limits for ownership claims. Such time limits have been a trend of late. See, for instance, this appellate win for Jerry Seinfeld last year. The topic continues to generate controversy and could be the subject of renewed attention by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals soon. That’s because of an ongoing legal battle between Starz and MGM over exclusive rights to various hit films, with a pending appeal attracting interest from various Hollywood guilds aiming to ensure fewer obstacles to enforcing rights.
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