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TMZ and parent company Warner Bros. have prevailed in a lawsuit brought by Jared Leto over a video the actor-musician contended was stolen.
The video features Leto and an engineer at a home studio critiquing various songs off of Taylor Swift’s “1989” album. At one point in the video, Leto becomes indifferent about Swift. “I mean, f— her,” he says. “I don’t give a f— about her.”
When TMZ published the video in December, it made a splash, and Leto quickly apologized. But then Leto’s company filed a lawsuit against TMZ to, in his words, “encourage more people to stop trafficking in stolen goods.”
Specifically, Leto asserted a copyright infringement claim and alleged that he had hired a videographer, who had provided TMZ with the footage. But the videographer — later revealed to be Naeem Munaf — had second thoughts, and the gossip site was warned against publishing. TMZ went ahead anyway.
In reaction to the lawsuit, TMZ argued that Leto never really owned the video and that it had been granted a license by Munaf to use it.
On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lew agreed, writing in a summary judgment opinion that the video wasn’t created as a work-made-for-hire for Leto’s company because Munaf wasn’t an employee of Leto’s and there was no written instrument confirming an agreement that Leto’s company owned it from the outset. In coming to this conclusion, the judge rejected Leto’s contention that he locked up rights by having Munaf sign a written agreement in December that confirmed an oral deal in September, when the footage was shot.
“While other out-of-circuit courts have held that a written instrument for a work made for hire may be executed after the work is created, it is clear based on the statute, the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Schiller, and this district’s ruling in Andreas Acarlsson, the intention is to have the written instrument executed before the work is made to clearly identify copyright ownership. Allowing the written instrument to be executed after the work is created would defeat the purpose of the statute in requiring a written instrument altogether.”
As indicated by the above language, this is an issue that has divided courts through the nation and could be ripe for an appeal.
For now, the judge goes on to conclude that Munaf transferred copyright ownership of the video in a Dec. 4 email dialogue with a TMZ staffer. Munaf was to be paid $2,000 for handing over the video. The videographer (who used a pseudonym) didn’t specifically state in his emails he was transferring ownership, but the intention was clear, writes the judge, adding that it also doesn’t matter that Munaf hadn’t personally scribbled his signature.
“While Munaf did not click a ‘yes’ button, Munaf did have to click the ‘send’ button and the email had ‘Jake Miller’ written at the bottom, purporting to be Munaf’s signature.”
The defendants were represented by Kelly Klaus at Munger Tolles & Olson.
The entire opinion is below.
Here’s what Leto had to say in reaction to the ruling: “We decided to fight back because it was the right thing to do. We will continue to fight because it is the right thing to do. Using antiquated laws to find loopholes that hurt, shame and slander people in the name of ‘news’ isn’t just a legal issue, it is a moral one. It was wrong of TMZ to purchase stolen goods. It was wrong of TMZ to exploit material that did not belong to them. Neither myself, nor the employee in question, have any confusion around the issue at hand – he was an employee who was hired to work for us and the footage he shot in the privacy of my home studio was owned by me. Ignoring the sworn testimony that both the videographer and I understood and agreed that I owned the footage, the decision rewards TMZ for their duplicity and further encourages them to publish materials they know to be stolen. We are launching an appeal immediately and are confident the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will reverse this decision. I hope that we will one day move toward a place where we ask how well we can treat one another rather than how badly. “
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